3. Grapes of Wrath (2)
When the Joads’ farmland dried up, leading to their eviction from their home and beginning their long sojourn to California, they sure had it easy. Well, relatively, right? The arc of the novel begins with a large family rather suddenly becoming homeless. To a modern reader of fiction, homelessness is the lowest of imaginable scenarios, and it’s often a threat so fundamental that it is left as an implicit motivator. It’s conceivable that a modern tragedy could begin with a well-off family and end with that family sinking into poverty. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads are homeless before Steinbeck is done with the exposition. Where can a story go from there?
If we read this novel as a story about America, we’re really thinking about psychological drama. American identity and the American Dream are conceptual, relative, and individual, so the loss of a farm doesn’t necessarily spell the absolute endgame of the Joads. Really, if anything, moving west strengthens their bonds—it makes manifest (pardon the pun) their understanding of the American Dream and their immediate purpose. They are redefined by their situation, discovering new roles and functions both individually and as a group.
However, it is not their hunger, their desperation, or their misery which brings them together. It is a vague aspiration made clear—the will to succeed, the American Dream—that brings them together in the novel, and that’s really the purpose of the American Family as a social unit. Once the Joads pack up for California, the fate of their Dream becomes very tangible—as simple as a handbill—and reduces to a single question: Is California really the Promised Land?
The final approach to the Golden State is the first time the final expression of hope for the Joads begins to deteriorate; the first time the act of dreaming itself begins to fail. A ragged man turning back to Oklahoma from California “to starve all at oncet” (189) tells them they’ve been lied to and they will not find work
The ragged man stared while Pa spoke, and then he laughed, and his laughter turned into a high whinnying giggle. The circle of faces turned to him. The giggling got out of control and turned into coughing. His eyes were red wand watering when he finally controlled the spasms. “You goin’ out there—on, Christ!” The giggling started again. “You goin’ out an’ get—good wages—oh, Christ! (188)
One can hear the disappointment and fear of his California ordeal coming out as laughter. In the darkest hours, the American Dream has turned into a farce.
Shortly thereafter, the family itself (not just their morale) deteriorates as Noah unceremoniously exits. If the Joad family can be taken as emblematic of the American identity, then the blow to their last hope mirrors America’s descent into the Great Depression. As the Dream falls apart, so does the social order, and the migrant camp teeters towards anarchy. The pursuit of specific goals is not only part of the American identity, it holds American society together. And with that fundamental fabric unraveling, Steinbeck finds the climax of his story of a crumbling nation.
Ma is the only real symbol of hope in these chapters. In chapter twenty, Ma prepares stew for her family and notices the mob of starving children that approach her begging for some of their food. Ma still prioritizes her family and feeds them first; however, she gives whatever is left to the children to try and help them out in whatever way she can. Coming from Los Angeles, I’ve spent a large portion of my life in a car. Angelinos use their cars as a personal bubble so that’s what I was used to when I moved to New York. Suddenly my bubble was gone and I was just out in the elements of the city. The hardest part of living in a city where everybody walks is that you truly are among everybody. There is a huge homeless population here in New York—I’m not saying there’s not an identical or even larger amount of homeless people in Los Angeles, but you have your “car bubble”—and you’re constantly walking among them as they beg and beg for something from a Penny to something to eat. It’s almost as if we’re constantly walking in Ma’s shoes. Only, are we the ones acting like everyone else in the Hooverville—out for ourselves, not willing to help out somebody in need? Yes. We are.
What is the American Dream? Its the thrill of gambling. Its the hope of putting a coin in a slot machine and thinking, “I have a chance just like everyone else. If that guy won, I have a chance too.” Hope is what it is. Driven by ideas of equality from the French Revolution, and the market. By promises of riches in the “new land” of the Americas, by pamphlets attracting too many workers in order to bring the wages down, by advertisements trying to sell nice cars, nice houses, nice lipstick, and beautiful woman. The slot machine is the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. It is a structure which presumes an equal playing field for all.
On one hand the dream gives people hope, on the other it is the monster that drives them off their land. It is both Pharaoh and the divine voice promising them more. Capitalism becomes a force that most can not understand. The simplicity of the hope of finding nice land on which to grow oranges, is a part of a complex machinery, an intricate bureaucracy of capitalist whit. To the none educated there is no one to blame for its fallacies and not the proper reason to thank for its fortunes.
The Reverend Casey is one of the most interesting characters in the novel because he is there to toy with the idea of hope. On the one hand we can see through the characters in the novel that they need religion to feel comfortable. They want Casey with them because he is a preacher, although he is not a preacher anymore. They ask him to say grace, to say words at the funeral and to pray for grandpa to make it through his stroke. During Casey's grace, which was not a religious one at all, Grandma systematically intersperses Amens, as if she isn't listening to what is being said what so ever, and later she says, Casey “gave a nice grace”. Although these people don't understand and believe the philosophies of the religion for what they are, the role that religion has in their lives is clear—and that is a means of hope. It is a means of praying to something they know is bigger than them, to a world which functions without their control. They believe in what they don't understand for the need of hope.
In chapter 17, Steinbeck elaborates on the roadside camps that the Joads and other migrant workers on their way to California created. I was struck by the sense of community, and how these camps seemed to be formed around hope rather than pessimism despite the brick wall of problems facing the travelers.
Camps and other short-term communities raise interesting questions about the idea of home, comfort and community. As I was reading I couldn't help to think back to my last experience with something akin to these roadside clusters.
Two summers ago, several friends and I piled into a Jetta and made a pilgrimage to Bonnaroo, a music festival in Manchester, Tennesse. As we slowed down to take the exit ramp off the highway, one of us remembered that we had neglected to pack any camping supplies. So we headed to Wal-Mart.
The scene in the parking lot was astounding - unlike any other I'd ever seen. Imagine the Joads and their friends being given a surplus of tie-dye kits and some camping chairs, and perhaps even a small beer allowance. Or thousands and thousands of road-tripping teens and twenties clustered in and around one of America's most notorious superstores.
The place was a temporary city, complete with concerts, crimes, kinship and barbecues - right there on the tarmac. I have rarely experienced such openness and friendliness from so many complete strangers. People bonded over the states on each other's license plates, just as Steinbeck's travelers categorize each other by the starting point of their journeys.
I think humans thrive when they feel needed and wanted. It creates a sense of belonging that might quell loneliness (an emotion that feels ever-present in Grapes of Wrath). The desire to feel included drives individuals to specify, to draw out talents that might be useful and offer them to their peers, whether that is playing guitar or Tom Joad's handy-man sensibilities.
For many people, especially those on the road (by choice or by necessity), "home" and "family" are very loose terms. The Wal-Mart tent city, as well as Bonnaroo itself, was definitely a temporary community, one that continues, for some, for the entire music festival season. Some men and women that I met hitchhiked throughout the festival circuit, until they reluctantly found another home for the winter months.
Futhermore, to the festival newcomer, or travelers like the Joads, there is a sense of the destination as Utopia. A soon-to-be-written success story. It's interesting to look back in hindsight at how these aspirations played out.
(to be continued in the next post!)
In the beginning of this class we talked a lot about the similarities and differences between the contemporary economic climate and the Great Depression. After watching Obama’s recent speech to the American people about the American Jobs Act I couldn’t help but think about these comparisons. Again, our country has been greatly divided into class stratifications. Once again, men who want to work are out of work but cannot find a job. While the trials associated the Great Depression were technically different then those we are facing today, the fundamental problems and the way we are dealing with them are greatly similar.
Obama’s rhetoric and cadence is reminiscent of a preacher’s voice. His dips and lows in his speech bring about this sense of attempting to instill faith in the people. Steinbeck describes through the character of Jim Casy maintenance of faith within the migrant workers. Their insistence on having a preacher and their thankfulness of having him along instills this idea that the migrants still remain faithful in the face of adversity. This spirit they never lose. Obama capitalizes on this spirit in his speeches, creating a sense of hope and camaraderie between workers.
Furthermore, Obama uses shadows of the American myth to create excitement and to describe the plight of the American people. At one point in his speech he declares, “We have got to start manufacturing and selling more goods around the world stamped with three proud words: made in America, made in North Carolina, made in Raleigh.“ ( "Now is the Time to Act") This ownership of the land, pride in personal property and the art of personal labor is seen within Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as well. Obama is still calling on the shadows of the American dream to help support his campaign. The notion of property and the connection to the land is still relevant today. People want the rights to property, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as set forth in the constitution. However, Steinbeck has shown us that the American dream myth is extremely faulty and often fails to produce the desired effects.
Watching Obama speak about the current economic situation in America coupled by the devastating loss of jobs in American seems at times to be a rehashing of this prior depression in our nations history. The scariest part of all is that we have allowed history to, in whatever level of graveness, repeat itself. Yet, as Steinbeck warns “ Fear the time when the bombs stop falling when the bombers live… fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is distinctive in the universe” (151). As long as the spirit of resistance still resides within the people then the spirit of man still exists. There is something to be hopeful about. While I do not think the displaced workers in America today are mobilizing in the same way we read about in The Grapes of Wrath I do think, and certainly hope that the spirit of resistance has not been lost.
"Now is The Time to Act". <http://www.barackobama.com/get-involved>.
I was born in the last six months of an era. That summer the air was tense with anticipation and when the first winds of fall came they brought with them change. Come December, the Soviet Union would become a thing of the past; a story before bedtime of a place far away, a place my family could only return to in memory.
My Great-Uncle had escaped to America by way of Italy in the '70s and my father had been waiting for the right moment to join him. For Jewish families like my own, the dissolution of Soviet power meant we were free to carry out the plans we had long dreamt of: leaving the country legally. So we began to draw up the papers needed and sell our belongings off in secret. Secrecy was crucial to the whole operation because it was common for a family set to move to be robbed and beaten upon their neighbors discovering their departures. They did not take kindly to the opportunities of others and like the pawnshop owners and used car salesmen in Steinbeck’s novel, they had little regard for what a family had to endure to obtain money. Our last day in Russia was marked by this event when a group of bus drivers surrounded us and demanded our money. As luck would have it, my father is a large, intimidating man with a talent for straightening out the misguided and we managed to escape money in hand. If we had lost it then, we'd be losing nearly 2 years of work selling good that amounted to nearly 1,000 American dollars. Privatization was slow to come and in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union selling off goods was still very difficult. My parents sold most of our things on the black market in the local schoolyard. They got very little for it, but not because they were cheated like the families escaping the Dustbowl; but because, a good's worth in Rubles paled in comparison to the value of the dollar.
With us we packed things of sentimental and cultural value: a large, expensive green carpet, beautiful china, books that we could not live without, all of our family albums. My mother took her knitting supplies in case she could earn some extra money making woven goods. Each of us had a bag and a suitcase. Our group consisted of me, my mother, father, brother, grandfather, grandmother, and uncle from my mother’s side. The rest of our extended family would go on to live in Israel and other parts of the world. My grandparents, who were not well, wanted to stay behind; however, like the Joads’, my father insisted we leave together.
We had no idea what awaited us, but we knew what we were leaving behind could not be worse. We had heard of the great prospects and success that awaited anyone who wished to work for it and that overpowered our fear of the unknown. We imagined just as Grampa that “come time we’ll have a bunch a grapes in our han’ all the time, a nibblin’ off it all the time” (91).
We arrived in New York on December 2, 1994 and spent that night sleeping on the floor of a Jewish Center in Brooklyn overlooking the Belt Parkway. The next couple of years would prove to be the hardest and most interesting of my life thus far as my family assimilated into everyday life in an entirely new world.
Ma: “Up ahead they’s a thousand lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll only be one.” (Steinbeck, 108)
He also notes the families’ desire to settle down again once they are in California and to discontinue their movement, “to acquire a little land again and to settle on it and stop their wandering” (22). This notion is carried on into the story of the Joads who at the beginning of chapter 16 are said as having taken on “movement as a medium of expression” (163). Rose of Sharon, however, tells Ma a story only a few paragraphs later about a dream she holds that her and Connie “wanna live in a town” and Connie is “gonna study at home, maybe radio, so he can git to be an expert an’ maybe later have his own store” (164). It’s the return to normalcy that both the Joads and the families who first enter their camps and begin putting their children into schools and digging latrines for themselves crave.
But the tractors have ruined the Joads and the families reported on in The Harvest Gypsies. “They have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm… to a system of agriculture so industrialized… the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle” (23). Since this is where the migrant takes pride in his doing, his life begins to unravel and it worsens with the death of family members (as the Joads begin to experience even before they reach the West Coast), the only thing driving the men to work and keeping hope alive during the depression.
How important is it to be open to meeting new people in your travels? While not every person will be someone like Jim Casy who becomes quite a lot more than just a preacher to the family, one can gain valuable knowledge and insight from the people along the road. It seems that today, the general population is more closed off to the meeting of others in this same fashion. I highly doubt that a family today would bring along a random preacher who they used to know on a family road trip (Let alone another unknown couple!). However, there are some people who still practice what can only be considered an art of meeting people in this day and age amongst all others who “meet” each other through online social networking resources.
My friend, Emma, has created a blog for such an art. She and nine others write about their experiences meeting people while traveling. In these cases, they turn simply “moving” into “travelling” by conversing with the men and women they meet while in transit. Who knows where their relationships with these people will end up! Perhaps they will end in the one meeting or perhaps these new friends will become significant in ways that we can only imagine. I’ll bet that the next time Emma and her friends prepare to head west in their Jalopy, there will be an ex-preacher waiting nearby to salt down their pig meat. Well, something like that.
(the photo is of someone who Emma's blogger, Katrina, met recently!)
The second family structure within the Grapes of Wrath is the one created by the migrant workers. They create a hierarchy amongst themselves, and are working together towards better lives. With no homes to call their own, life as migrants calls for new kinships to be formed. “In the evening, a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts o twenty families, of a hundred people, that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with birth-joy in the morning.” (193) Facing hardships together trumped genetics, and familial unions became crucial to survival. Leaders were established amongst the migrants, as well as a set of ‘laws’ to abide by. “And as the worlds moved westward they were more complete and better furnished, for their builders were more experienced in building them.” (195)
As the Joads themselves had done before their move to California, each member of their new and extended family had jobs to fulfill to keep the machine of their lives continuing forward. “Each member of the family grew into his proper place, grew into his duties; so that each member, old and young, had his place in the car; so that in the weary, hot evenings, when the cars pulled into the camping places, each member had his duty and went to it without instruction: children to gather wood, to carry water; men to pitch tents and bring down the beds; women to cook the supper and to watch while the family fed. And this was done without command.” (195) It was a familiar, comfortable scene for most of the migrants-fathers did heavy labor while mothers cooked and cared for the children.
In Chapter 17 Steinbeck spends the chapter describing the migrant worker communities that are developing on the road. Essentially, these communities would become their own tribal societies, their own microcosms with their own rules, folkways and elders. It actually reminded me of when I was younger and I’d go visit my cousin’s bungalow colony. Like these tribes, my cousins bungalow colony, a group of 30-35 families from all over the country, came together to become a sort of extended family.
I still remember they even used to have these massive barbeques where all the families would sit around, the elders with the elders, parents with the parents and the children with children at the children’s tables. It didn’t matter that many of the families came from different areas and backgrounds, or that some of the families were of different faiths, or that some were wealthier than others. Everyone was there to have a good summer. When a grandparent passed away other families chipped into help. They’d make meals and offer to pick up the family’s older children from the respective sleep away camps.
When conflicts broke out people didn’t fist fight, but certainly words would be had to overcome the difference. I never heard of an instance of it, but I’d imagine if someone had truly crossed the line they would be ostracized by the rest of the community, just like within these road families.
What I found so ironic about these summers was that very few of these families kept in touch. When they’d return from the winters in their other lives they’d embrace and catch up on all the major events that happened during the year. It was as if they weren’t even friends, let alone family during the year but all of a sudden were brothers during the summer.
Looking back, I think it was the bungalow colony that tied them together. It was their connection to the place and that it represented a united goal of having a great relaxing summer that allowed these otherwise unrelated families to bond into their own little society. So too, the shared home of the road and the ultimate goal of reaching California that it represented allowed these familial tribes to form overnight, for essential strangers to live amongst each other as if brothers.
And like the bungalow colony, where the summer would end after the great relaxing time had been had and the families would go their separate ways, so
too I get the impression that when these families actually reach California and achieve the goal they’ve all been striving for, they will go their separate ways, to their real lives.
The first change in roles between the older men and Ma came once the family had been on the road awhile: the men “were not farm men any more, but migrant men. And the thought, the planning, the long staring silence that had gone out to the fields, went now to the roads, to the distance, to the West” (196). Although the men established control over the car, Ma constantly held the family together. When Granma became sick, she took to caring for her while simultaneously giving a motherly advice about living and dying to Rose of Sharon, who is preparing to have a child (210).
Her strength and courage is also shown through her actions toward the policeman that visited the Joad’s tent; she advanced on him with an iron skillet while even talking some trash (214). The uneasy feeling Ma gets sleeping next to Granma on the mattress, even after she died, corroborates this seen strength and courage. Not many people would tolerate this, but Ma could, demonstrating her ability to be the glue that held the large makeshift family together; all other family members are amazed at her love: “John, there’s a woman so great with love – she scares me” (229). Ma demonstrates this love by taking the reigns of the group at the agricultural security stop. She physically demonstrates her strength, which helps us understand that this woman has a mind made of Teflon and a body made of steel.
Her motherly instincts come back into play when she and Tom are in the front of the car and are stopped by a policeman who prohibits the Joads from going South. She physically restrains her son from grabbing a jack handle. Afterwards, she praises him, like a good mother, but then proceeds to give Tom appreciation: “ ‘you done good,’ Ma said tenderly. ‘You done jus’ good.’” She then talks to Tom about how calm he must be with policeman, giving him advice just as she had done with Rose of Sharon. And her control of the family is best portrayed through her knowledge of the future: “You got to have patience…Why, Tom we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on” (280).
Ma’s overall patience, strength, courage, and love ultimately define the perfect mother during such turbulent times. These characteristics of hers also support Robert Briffault’s theory that “all familial feeling, all group-sympathy, the essential foundation…of a social organization, is the direct product of prolonged maternal care, and does not exist apart from it,” as Warren Motley describes in his article “From Patriarchy to Matriarchy: Ma Joad’s Role in The Grapes of Wrath” (Motley 399). Robert Briffault published a multi-volume book called Mothers in 1927.
In contrast to all of her strengths and movement from “mother” to “Mother In Charge,” we never actually learn Ma’s real name throughout the novel. She represents an archetype: the “motherly mother.”
The migrants on the road to California traveled independently during the day, but at night “they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country” (193). As a result, if twenty families camped together at night, “the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all… the loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream” (193). Likewise, the Joads adopted the Wilsons into their traveling expedition after the Wilsons lent a hand when Grampa died in their tent during Chapter 13. Once you go through an experience like that together, you’re like family and you feel obligated to look out for one another.
The human inclination to help others in need is something that evidences itself in a plethora of situations. Whether it is a death, a divorce, a recession, or something else entirely, the situation is more likely to improve and seem less hopeless if others are empathetic and work together to dig those who are suffering out of an abyss (emotional, financial, or otherwise). Even if it is done with the hope and reinforcing one’s own “good karma,” the important thing is that there are times that people overlook their own needs and desires for a few minutes in the effort of making others have an easier time. I recently lost a very close family member and thus I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. Friends, family, and people I didn’t even know dropped what they were doing in the initial time afterward and went out of their way to stop by my family’s home to deliver us freshly prepared meals and offer their support in general.
Human nature is often condemned for leaning toward the selfish side. However, people do harbor the ability to genuinely care about others. As the migrant families on the road during the Depression found out, sometimes people join hands and work together, play together, cry together, and share each other’s burdens. Even if it is for a transient period of time, there are moments when the world isn’t comprised of 6.96 billion distinct individuals looking out only for their own survival. Sometimes, if you take the time to really look, families join together with others to create one collective group in an effort to leave no one behind. And in a story of humanity, that makes all the difference in determining how people are perceived.
Why is it that Americans are now turning on each other? That the police are looked at in fear rather than to hope in a time of need? As Steinbeck has expressed there is no one person to blame for the Depression. We can blame the banks and the government but neither of those holds a real face. With the enemy having no real face maybe that’s why this particular crisis has gone against a very contemporary trend of turning to our neighbors for comfort and support.
Even the inhabitants of the tent cities are cold and standoffish to one another. Disregarding the hunger needs of others, fueling and intense competition for work, nobody is working together. The only sign of teamwork we get from Steinbeck is that of the family unit, but even in the current chapters that seems to be falling apart. The grandparents have died, Casey has been hauled off to jail (though to protect his “family”), Connie has disappeared, and everyone else is beginning to lose their sanity. The family unit is now falling apart and the trend of selfishness is beginning to appear.
Each individual person is becoming more and more wrapped up in their own head and worried about their own needs. This goes country-wide as well. The wealthy are keeping their distance from the poor, the Californians are reluctant to welcome migrants into their state, and the law enforcement is going corrupt. (At least from what we see during the shooting in Hooverville). A trend of selfishness has been cast over America and I think this could be a topic to discuss as to why unity no longer exists during this time. Rather than coming together during this economic crisis Americans are pushing away from one another and perhaps causing even more damage in the end.
Ironically in Saving Jobs, Saving Homes, and Building a Better Future, the American Dream IS home ownership, and that seems to be it. It explains the rough economic times our country has recently dealt with and elaborates on how these financial crises are preventing people from achieving this dream of home ownership. It is interesting to read an article with such a primary base when our class discussion was so focused on the infrastructure of this so-called dream. We concluded that it is made up of multiple different factors and that there is not a single word that can express such a widespread, opinionated concept.
As the characters begin to realize for themselves how hard it is to make a sufficient living, or any at all, in California, they decide that when they encounter a job opportunity, they would set down some of their own rules. However, this is exactly what landed Knowles in the hands of the police. This lack of freedom seems to be a large part of what is keeping them from feeling like they have any shot at the American Dream. All these people want is to be able to provide food and shelter for their family. They have gotten to a point where they do not need ownership of their own houses but just want to have the basic necessities of life. The Joad’s seem to have a family structure in which each member plays their own part to contribute to the family dynamic. Ma comforts Tom by telling him, “we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people-we go on” (280). This family structure seems to be so dynamic and brings not only one, but many, families together as a team. Today, people seem to be in constant competition with everyone around them, and in order to achieve the American Dream, they must succeed above and beyond others.
The second separation, or rather, prospect of separation, is when Rose of Sharon lays out the plan that she and Connie have devised to “live in a town” (224). Ma’s immediate reaction is rejection; she says, “We don’ want you to go ‘way from us…It ain’t good for folks to break up” (225). In light of Grampa’s death, it is clear that Ma is completely closed to the idea of further breaking up their “gathered family” (228). It is shortly after Rose of Sharon’s confession that the car breaks down and Tom proposes separating the family so that they can continue their travels until it is fixed. Ma says that she “ain’t a-gonna go” (230). She argues that they have “[n]othin’ but the folks. We came out an' Grampa, he reached for the shovel-shelf right off. An’ now, right off, you wanna bust up the folks” (230-1). She clearly fears what might happen if they break up the family—she even implies that they could lose another family member. She fights with Pa on the matter, proving that tensions are high. The family is already stressed and upset, and Ma cannot handle the idea of further separating them.
This issue can even be seen in today’s American culture. A University of Maryland Baltimore County study found that “family separation during migration has a negative impact on the educational success of children that goes beyond the problems experienced by all migrants.” These children have a higher high-school drop out rate. It can be ascertained that these children, separated from their families, feel emotional trauma that is distracting from school, causing them to fall behind and in some cases, drop out.