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Reading Grapes of Wrath in the 21st Century

The Grapes of Wrath

Title: The Grapes of Wrath
By: John Steinbeck

According to Steinbeck scholars, the Grapes of Wrath is the most thoroughly discussed novel in 20th century American literature. But a reading in the 21st century can enable us to have deeper discussions, such as the practice of bank foreclosures and their aftermath. Lured by the promises on handbills, the foreclosured Joad family took Route 66 to come to California from Oklahoma. Their hope to make a decent living was soon dashed by California farmers’ obsession with finding the cheapest labor to assure maximum profit. As one of the governing rules of the free market, it caused the oversupply of labor when the Dust Bowl swept across the prairie lands in the 1930s, a phenomenon not unlike 1849’s Gold Rush and today’s fragile globalized economy. During the process, much of the established infrastructure has been sold or destroyed, from farming to manufacturing, from banking to information services and technologies.

In addition, the book dissects some weakness in human nature, i.e., self-preservation and self-protection in the face of threatening competition, thus the antagonism between the haves and the have-nots, and the affluent locals and the Okies. The government aid in the form of Weedpatch Camp, a New Deal agency, was simply too little to help numerous displaced and needy migrants. The traditional trust in family as a helping unit became unreliable. Poor migrant families came to the painful realization that they could get help only from their fellow poor migrants. But such a realization is only relative, for there will always exist a new conflict between early settlers and those who arrive later. Even in the case of the Joad family, they enjoyed a temporary superior status on a cotton farm, “The Joads had been lucky. They got in early enough to have a space in the boxcars. Now the tents of the late-comers filled the little flat, and those who had the boxcars were old- timers, and in a way aristocrats.”

The Grapes of Wrath is a powerful reading, especially in its portrayals of hardy but resourceful characters like Tom and Ma, so as to provide us with glimpses of hope. Confronted with a penniless future, the Joads and Wainwrights celebrated a new union for their son and daughter. After the mourning of her stillborn baby, Rosasharn lost no time nursing back another human life.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction, classics

Posted on Jan. 22, 2013 at 10:13 a.m.

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