The Grapes of Wrath,
John Steinbeck’s iconic American travel tome opens with greater emphasis put on the physicality of the American landscape, rather than the people who inhabit it. The life cycle of the Oklahoma red country controls the farmers who work the land and can disrupt entire cultures and ways of life that are built around it.
The story centers on the Joad family and their push west after being displaced from their farm by the blameless monster of capitalism. While the Joad’s story does take precedent, the reader is constantly reminded that they are only one example of countless number of families moving west. The universality of the Joad experience is consistently referenced with Steinbeck’s insertion of chapters with a decidedly more allegorical bent dealing with common themes of American’s moving west.
Besides these chapters not dealing directly with the Joad narrative, they seem to pay greater attention to the land itself. The opening chapter meanders poetically through the process of the land drying out and crusting over with dust – the central conflict that precipitates families moving out west.
Another formal construct that Steinbeck employs to emphasis the power of the land itself can be seen at the open and close of most chapters in the novel. Chapters are bookended with several sentences describing qualities of the land before and after telling a specific part of the Joad’s saga. This effectively boxes the character’s story within the harsh confines of the land – further illustrating how so many were ruined by the dust of Oklahoma and how their only salvation lies in the journey to the idyllic fertile lands of the west.
One final example of the power the land holds over the people in The Grapes of Wrath
can be seen in two characters: the eccentric Muley Graves and Grandpa Joad. Muley stays behind when his family goes west because he feels such strong ties to the land where he came from. He chooses to live life like an “ol’ graveyard ghos’” (pg 51), prowling around at night and hiding from the authorities. Grandpa Joad barely made it beyond state lines before he suffering a stroke and dying in a tent on the side of the road.
From plot points to styles of writing Steinbeck makes it clear that these characters, representative of an entire class of people, are firmly not in control of their own destiny and remain at the mercy of the land they had once controlled.