In the course of telling the story of a people and a country in “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck offers an unforgettable evaluation of the American desire to enter the Promised Land. But Steinbeck’s garden is Eden after the fall dominated by the expectation of hardship, suffering, and death. In such a world, men and women may be tempted to act selfishly, but they cannot afford to do so. To survive, they must make common cause.

I.

Although he did not always share the political outlook of his contemporaries, John Steinbeck was the representative American writer of the 1930s. As no other novel, The Grapes of Wrath captured the essence of American life during the Great Depression. An immediate success when published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath sounded a resonant chord in the American national consciousness, a deep yearning for the world that had been rather than the world that was to come.

The novel exposed the inconsistencies that defined the United States throughout this turbulent period in its history. Dichotomies abound. Steinbeck admired American economic power, but recoiled in horror at its misuse. He insisted on the need for social change and political reform, but approached with reverence the cultural traditions of the American people. In a decade when many American thinkers and writers demanded that literature serve a revolutionary purpose, Steinbeck called on Americans to remember their origins and to revere their past. Enduring a failure of institutions and a crisis of values, Americans took both solace and inspiration from his appeal.

If countless Americans admired the novel, countless others remained at the least skeptical toward it, if not implacably opposed to it. Citizens and politicians alike debated the meaning of The Grapes of Wrath in public forums and in print, including on the floor of the United States Senate and House of Representatives. Ministers denounced it from their pulpits, while numerous city councils and local school boards banned it from the shelves of public and school libraries. Some, who regarded the novel as seditious and treasonous, burned it. Yet, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath was among those rare works of fiction that had a discernible influence on the course of events. Steinbeck wrote about conditions that were making news, and the novel itself became part of the story.

Unlike most writers of the 1930s, Steinbeck neither embraced nor even seriously flirted with a specific political ideology. He did not participate in the efforts to promote communism or other radical doctrines. Political independence enabled him to avoid most of the defects that blemish the fiction of the 1930s, which as often as not gave voice to prejudice and credence to propaganda. The general chapters notwithstanding, Steinbeck’s novel is foremost a story about the plight of human beings, not a disguised tract to elaborate a political theory or social nostrum. But Steinbeck hardly remained neutral in the struggles of the 1930s. Of all the events and developments reflected in the mirror of Steinbeck’s fiction, none were more significant or more troubling than the rise and growth of organizations. Steinbeck testified to the ascendancy of big business and big government, and supported the attempts of workers to form unions to counter the growing power of the corporate and government bureaucracies that were intent on manipulating and oppressing them. Less determined to sustain this impulse to collectivity, Steinbeck was instead fearful that the humane life which traditional communities could understand and master was slipping into the past.

The Grapes of Wrath is a work of epic dimension. In it, Steinbeck repeatedly adjusted the focus from the American people—the Joads and the other migrants—to America and back again. In the course of telling the story of a people and a country, Steinbeck also offered an unforgettable evaluation of the American desire to enter the Promised Land. Vital to the meaning of The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s preoccupation with California as the new American Eden. This same fascination informed much of his fiction before and after he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. In this novel, the Central Valley of California symbolizes the enduring American quest for heaven on earth. The valley, of course, is an ironic symbol, for it represents Eden after the fall, complete with serpents of its own. The intuition of paradise nonetheless draws migrants westward from Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl in their endless pursuit of the Promised Land. The flight of the Joad family is both among the most dramatic social phenomena of the 1930s and a recapitulation of the westward trek that Americans had undertaken since before the creation of the Republic. It also echoes the biblical journey of the Israelites who fled bondage in Egypt for the Land of Canaan.

Steinbeck intended not only to expose the fatal delusion intrinsic to the American search for heaven on earth. More important, he also sought to replace that false dream of perfection with another, more realistic, more salutary dream based on the commitment to a specific people, a specific place, and a specific way of life. That commitment was the solution Steinbeck invoked to the predicament Americans faced during the Great Depression and to all those they would face in the future. Notwithstanding the hardship, the misery, and the injustice that permeate The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck kept alive hope in the future, and proposed a way out of the doomed American paradise into what was at once a more chastened but more gratifying reality.

In the first pages, Steinbeck describes in subtle but haunting detail the hot, parched American wasteland, which anticipates the structure and meaning of the novel itself:

To the Red Country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the grey country.[1]

Following his panoramic view, Steinbeck zooms in. From the red and gray country of Oklahoma, he moves to the corn and weeds of one field and the grass that clusters at the side of the road. He immediately begins again to refocus, like the telescopic lens of a camera, on the pale sky, the dissolving clouds, and the blistering sun that dries out the land and sears the corn. Again, Steinbeck returns to a tighter focus, not simply exhibiting the dying fields of corn but pointing to the one line of brown that spreads among the green and portends disaster.

A narrative pattern of expansion and contraction defines the novel. Steinbeck begins with a general view of the plight of the Okie migrants and juxtaposes it to an intimate portrait of the Joads. He thereby illuminates their circumstances as well as the larger movement of which they are a part. This combination of the general and the specific, this dialectic of expansion and contraction, enables Steinbeck to reveal the drama and the pathos of his main characters without ignoring the larger social, political, and economic significance of their experience. The suffering of the Joads is personal. At the same time, they are emblematic of a vast number of Americans who, like them, are also the victims of a tragedy that had assumed monstrous proportions.

Dispossessed of their Oklahoma homestead after the depleted soil, the unrelenting drought, and the recurrent dust storms make it impossible for them to raise a crop on the land, and the bank forecloses on their property, the Joads depart for California, propelled by rumors that they can find work. They have no choice; they must take to the road. Meanwhile, the land that they have farmed for generations is now joined to that of their unfortunate neighbors. The nameless, faceless banks that own the land in as much as they hold title to it have determined that it can be cultivated more efficiently and profitably by a few men using tractors and other modern equipment than if can by families of sharecroppers. Along the journey toward what they hope will be a better future in the West, Grandpa and Grandma Joad die, and Noah and Connie, Rose of Sharon’s husband, desert the family. The rest arrive in California to find the labor market saturated with men and women much like themselves, resented by the local inhabitants, exploited by the growers, and brutalized by the police. The novel ends with the Joads more impoverished and oppressed than before they left Oklahoma.

The principal theme of the novel revolves around the choice between irresponsibility and commitment. For Steinbeck, this decision was preeminently moral rather than political. The cropped-out, dried-up Dust Bowl world in which Steinbeck set the novel is a powerful symbol of failed responsibility. Despite his sympathy for the Joads and the other dispossessed persons, Steinbeck did not exempt them from blame for ruining the land and robbing the earth of its fertility. Like American pioneer farmers of the nineteenth century, the Okies used up the land and left themselves with no option but to move West, even as corporations and banks force them to go. The sharecroppers plead with the land owners for a chance to hang on just a little longer. Another year might alter their fortunes. Perhaps there will be another war, such as the Great War, to set agricultural prices soaring again. “Get enough wars,” one sharecropper says, “and cotton’ll hit the ceiling. Next year, maybe.”[2] The sharecroppers are as heartless and self-serving as any other capitalist, willing to barter death to make a profit and to save their way of life. Although they draw spiritual as well as material sustenance from the soil, the sharecroppers are not the innocents they at first appear to be. Their situation is more complex. They are master and slave, oppressor and victim.

II.

Contact with the soil alone is not enough to prevent men from ravaging the land. Steinbeck condemned the abuse of nature in which the sharecroppers engaged, as he did their hope for a war to save themselves at the cost of other lives. It was neither drought nor technological innovation by themselves that ruined the farmers. Their own exploitive designs and selfish desires also contributed to their undoing. To redeem themselves, the sharecroppers had to abandon their efforts to control nature and to sacrifice other men in the service of their own interests. Survival in the modern world might depend on selfish, possessive individualism, but the spiritual, to say nothing of the material, welfare of humanity rested on a devotion to the common good. Judged by that measure, the sharecroppers of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl failed in their responsibility toward the land, each other, and their fellow human beings. Like their biblical counterparts, the Israelites who, having doubted the Word of God, were set to wandering in the desert for forty years, the Okies take to the road to learn a new commitment to humanity and a new reverence for the land.

For all their sins, the sharecroppers are also victims. Their anguish has earned them a deeper insight into the perils of the human condition, into the vast, dark stretches of the soul. If the sharecroppers have begged the landowners to let them hang on for another year, they also warn the owners that “you’ll kill the land with cotton.” The landowners know. Perhaps some even care. But there is nothing they can do; rather, there is nothing they are willing to do. They seek to turn a quick profit “before the land dies.” The bank, which really owns the land, is a monster than must be sated. Banks, the landowners explain, are not men. Banks do not breathe air or eat meat. If they do not receive their sustenance, they die and the economy breaks down. “It’s not us,” confess the landowners, “it’s the bank:”

A bank isn’t like a man…. That’s the monster…. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men…. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.[3]

During the 1930s, the banks were dying, and so the sharecroppers had to go, just as earlier they and their ancestors had forced others off the land.

To make the land their own, the sharecroppers had killed the Indians who occupied it before them. They cannot kill the banks. In his bewildered despair, one of their company asks: “But where does it stop? Who can we shoot?”[4] There is no one. They had worked the land even as it resisted their exertions. They and their children after them had been born on the land, and some of them had died on and were buried beneath it. “That’s what makes it ours,” they insist, “being born on it, working it, and dying on it. That makes ownership, not a piece of paper with numbers on it.”[5] But, Steinbeck maintained, the pattern of displacement and dispossession that the sharecroppers now experience had characterized American history since the first colonists arrived in the New World and the first settlers departed for the West. Take the land from those who dwell in it. Exhaust fertile soil and abandon barren waste. Move on. Leave the sterile remnants for those who come afterward and can obtain nothing better.

The Joads, of course, are ensnared in this pattern of displacement and dispossession. They have no alternative save to yield to it until, along with thousands of other migrants, they reach the Pacific Ocean, beyond which they cannot go. Even the “owner men” ask the sharecroppers why they don’t go on west to California. “There’s work there,” they promise, “and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why, there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?”[6] The paean to California, the Promised Land, the American Eden, sounds repeatedly throughout the novel.

Only Tom Joad suspects that California may not be the paradise the family envisions. He sees beyond their hope. At the outset of their journey, he tells Ma about the information he received while in prison from an honest Californian:

He says theys too many folks lookin’ for work right there now. An’ he says the folks that pick the fruit live in dirty ol’ camps an’ don’t hardly get enough to eat. He says wages is low an’ hard to get any.

Tom is realistic and practical. He knows that the family must go west if it is to stay together and survive. He also understands their need to believe that California is the answer to all their dreams and prayers, as Ma imagines “how nice it’s gonna be….

Never cold. An’ fruit ever’place, an’ people just bein’ in the nicest places. Little white houses in among the orange trees. I wonder—that is, if we can all get jobs an’ all work—maybe we can get one of them little white houses. An’ the little fellas go out an’ pick oranges right off the tree. They ain’t gonna be able to stand it. They’ll get to yellin’ so.[7]

For the good of the family, Tom suppresses his doubts, and concentrates on getting everyone to California.

When at last the Joads arrive, it is Tom who again tempers their enthusiasm. Surveying the mountainous desert wasteland near Needles, California, Tom exclaims that he “never seen such tough mountains”:

This here’s a murder country. This here’s the bones of a country. Wonder if we’ll ever get in a place where folks can live ‘thout fightin’ hard scabble an’ with little houses like Ma says, white. Ma got her heart set on a white house. Get to thinkin’ they ain’t no such country.

Pa objects that Tom should “wait till we get to California. You’ll see nice country then.” “Jesus Christ, Pa!” Tom replies. “This here is California.”[8] No congenital pessimist, Tom Joad refuses to be seduced by beautiful illusions or false hopes. Like the others, he wants to believe in a better world, but only if it really exists. He has seen too much of life and the world as they are, and has known too much disappointment and privation to allow himself to be fooled. The hope that Steinbeck held out for the future of America originated precisely in this ability to look with a cold eye on the ugly reality that lies beneath the façade of Eden and to preserve some modicum of faith.

From the beginning, the Joads never had a chance. Reality made it impossible for them to find a new Eden in the West, since, as Tom supposed, their Promised Land did not exist. Others have gone before them on the same journey, only to return defeated. Just before they enter California, the Joads encounter a father and son who have confronted this devastating truth. “She’s a nice country,” they tell the Joads. “But she was stole a long time ago…. Nice to look at, but you can’t have none of it.”[9]

Despite such warnings, and the Joads’ own mounting apprehensions, nowhere in American literature does California so magnificently fulfill its role as the Promise Land as it does when the Joads enter the Central Valley. They stop the old truck atop Tehachapi Pass and gaze down into a veritable land of milk and honey. It is dawn, the hour of rebirth and renewal:

They drove through Tehachapi in the morning glow, and the sun came up behind them, and then suddenly they saw the great valley below them. Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and, “Jesus Christ! Look!” he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses…. The peach trees and walnut groves, and the dark green patches of oranges. And red roofs among the trees, and barns—rich barns.[10]

In this vision, all of the possibilities inherent in the dream of a New American Eden are realized.

Almost immediately reality intrudes to ruin this idyllic moment. First, the Joads discover that grandma has died during the night while the family crossed the Arizona desert, an occurrence that Ma Joad has kept to herself until now. Second, a rattlesnake crosses their path. There are snakes in Eden. “A rattlesnake crawled across the road,” Steinbeck writes, “and Tom hit it and broke it and left it squirming.” These two events portend all the trouble that is to come, as the family beings the descent into the valley. Thinking of all they have left behind, their home, the land, the only way of life they have known, grandpa dead and buried by the side of the road and grandma’s body riding uneasily in the back of the truck, Tom observes: “Jesus, are we gonna start clean! We sure ain’t bringin’ nothin’ with us.”[11] He chuckles for a moment at his words, but quickly stops laughing and guides the truck down the mountain.

III.

Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads of necessity sever their ties with the past. The loss of home and land and the deaths of grandpa and grandma signify one kind of loss. Noah’s departure, as he walks away from the family along the banks of the Colorado River on the very threshold of paradise, symbolizes an even more crucial break with the past. His name recalls the Old Testament destruction and regeneration of humanity and creation. Without Noah, the Joads, to say nothing of the other migrants, must face alone the coming deluge. Their survival depends not on divine intervention but rather on their commitment to care for one another. The law of the New Testament has imperceptibly replaced the divine retribution of the Old, and the greatest law of Christ was to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Characters such as Muley Graves, by contrast, will not survive. He does not despise his neighbor, but is too absorbed in his private anguish to offer them much solace. He cannot stand outside of his own pain to acknowledge theirs. As his first name suggests, Muley is inflexible and stubborn. His last name reveals that he is a serious man but that he is also dead, that his way of life is ending. Even he knows that he is nothing more than “a damn ol’ graveyard ghos’.” Muley cannot separate his sense of identity and community from the land and its history. He cannot adapt. “Place where folks live,” he says, “is them folks. They ain’t whole, out on the lonely road in a piled-up car. They ain’t alive no more.”[12] Or as one of the anonymous migrants expresses it to the people who buy his household goods: “You are not buying only junk, you’re buying junked lives…. How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”[13] Like Muley and so many others, Grandpa Joad cannot bear to leave the land. Jim Casy explains that “Grandpa didn’t die tonight. He died the minute you took ’im off the place…. Oh, he was breathin’, but he was dead. He was that place, an;’ he knowed it…. Your way was fixed an’ Grandpa didn’t have no part in it…. He’s jus’ stayin’ with the lan’. He couldn’t leave it.”[14] The Joads must determine how, whether, and to what extent they can carry their former sense of identity, family, and community with them into a new and often hostile environment.

Steinbeck uses biological symbols to emphasize the similarities between human beings and animals in this constant struggle for survival. For instance, he devotes an entire chapter to an extended discussion of the turtle, which is animated by the indomitable will to live. The hardness of its shell guards against predators and other hazards. Nature uses the turtle to carry and deposit seeds. Like the turtle, the Joads also carry everything they own on their backs. They, too, pick up life in one place and slowly transfer it to another. Steinbeck reinforces the correspondence between the Joads and the turtle when Tom gives a turtle that he has found to the children as a gift. Eventually, they release the turtle and it travels on as the Joads must do. Like the turtle, they must adapt to new circumstances and continue to move forward.

Jim Casy, the former “Jesus-jumpin’” preacher who has lost his faith, hints at a way to do so by emphasizing the common life of humanity. It is in Preacher Casy that Steinbeck transforms the biblical focus of the novel from the Old Testament figure of Noah to the New Testament figure of Christ, and to the new covenant that the sacrifice and death of Christ implies.

Casy has joined the migration not to escape poverty but to experience and to learn what it is to be human. He exclaims:

I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, an’ I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach ‘em nothin’. I’m gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ‘em talk, gonna hear ‘em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ‘em an’ learn…. Gonna lay in the grass, open an’ honest with anybody that’ll have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, all that’s what I didn’t understan’. All them things is the good things.

Casy long ago suspended judgment of the world. He has renounced at once sin and virtue. There is no good and no evil, he says, “there’s just stuff people do.”[15]

Preacher Casy who, like Christ, “got tired” and “mixed up” and “went into the wilderness” at last discovers his truth: the spiritual bond that unites humanity must reveal itself in this world as a social and political bond. “Maybe all men got one big soul,” he tells Tom, that “ever’body’s a part of:”

I got to thinkin’, on’y it wasn’t thinkin’, it was deeper down than thinkin’. I got to thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth and run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy.[16]

Casy’s does not put his faith in any political creed. He extols no ideology or doctrine, even as he exemplifies Steinbeck’s veneration of the common man. Rather, Casy articulates an idea that transcends both individualism and collectivism, both capitalism and communism, and demands the responsibility of all men and women for all men and women. A love for the “whole thing,” as Casy calls it, is essential to human survival.

The first instance of spontaneous compassion links the Joads and the Wilsons. The Wilsons allow Grandpa Joad to die in their tent and bury him in one of their quilts with a page torn from the family Bible. Later the Joads refuse to abandon the Wilsons when their car breaks down on the road. As Pa Joad declares “we got almost a kin bond.”[17] Near the end of the novel, Al Joad, Tom’s younger brother, tears down the tarpaulin that hangs between his family and the Wainwrights so that “the two families in the [box]car were one.” In one of the most poignant scenes of the novel a family shares breakfast with a stranger, who turns out to be Tom Joad, although their generosity brings them closer to starvation. Steinbeck wrote that people who had come “from a place of sadness and worry and defeat,” people who were “lonely and perplexed,” people who had nothing or next to nothing “shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country.” Thus it might be that:

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 of twenty families, or a hundred people; that a birth there in the tent kept a hundred people quiet and awe-struck through the night and filled a hundred people with birth-joy in the morning. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for the baby. In the evening, sitting around the fires, the twenty were one.[18]

Steinbeck thereby reconstitutes the sense of family and community that the migrants left behind. Meanwhile those who refuse to share, those who continue to be mistrustful and selfish, assure their own destruction.

Life in the Weedpatch government camp brings Steinbeck’s alternate vision of community most clearly into focus.[19] Here the Joads and the other migrants find a temporary respite from indignity and oppression. In the camp, they are no longer ashamed of themselves, but, as Ma says, they can “feel like people again.”[20] The camp operates according to the principles of shared responsibility and collective effort, a model of democratic self-government. The residents make their own decisions, assigning duties according to notions of justice and competence rather than adhering to outworn hierarchies or submitting to individual ambitions.

The residents also no longer live under a capricious and unjust authority, which manipulates and abuses them. They abide instead by rules and laws of their own making. The corrupt police do not harass them at will. When necessary, those who live in the camp punish wrongdoers as they see fit and as their own edicts require. Cooperation rather than individualism is the animating spirit of the camp. The people recognize that the hunger of one leaves every person famished and that the happiness of one fills every heart with joy. The camp is not a heaven on earth, as the name Weedpatch signifies. Imperfect in itself, the camp brings perfection neither to human nature nor to society. Evil still intrudes. But the camp offers hope that a decent life may be had for those who behave decently toward others—those who do their utmost to help rather than to hinder.

Most of the wealthy landowners, on the contrary, believe that these poor, uneducated, wretched souls deserve no better than to be regarded with contempt. To offer them amenities such as flush toilets, showers, and hot and cold running water only instills in them a sense of entitlement and emboldens them to ask for more and better, giving rise to social unrest and political agitation. Yet, the charity and goodwill with which the migrants treat one another confirms the strength of their fellowship. When protected from a corrupt system, they are quick to establish a civilized society in which everyone can live as a human being.

IV.

The most important acknowledgement of social responsibility and spiritual unity comes from Ma Joad and Tom. Ma begins the westward journey armed with a fierce defense of the family because, as she says, “all we got is the family unbroke…. I ain’t gonna see us bust up.” By the end of the journey, Ma has changed her mind. “Use’ ta be that fambly was fust. It ain’t so now,” she concedes. “It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.”[21] In prison, Tom learned to mind his own business and to live one day at a time, awaiting his release. He tells the trucker from whom he hitches a ride on his way to the old home place following his parole that he is “just tryin’ to get along without shovin’ nobody around.” But as is the case with his mother, Tom has developed a different perspective by the time he reaches California. He knows now that “a fella ain’t no good alone.”[22] Like Preacher Casy, of whom he has become something of a disciple, Tom is reborn as a man committed not merely to himself or even to his family, but also to the welfare of humanity as a whole. As they say what may be their final good-bye, Tom comforts his mother with the thought that no matter where he is he will never be far from her. “I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark,” he promises:

Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.[23]

Tom vows to complete the movement from selfishness and individualism to responsibility and community. He will help those broken by life and the world to cultivate a new garden out of the inhospitable land in which they find themselves exploited, abused, and forgotten.

Steinbeck reserved the most powerful illustration of commitment and responsibility for the conclusion of the novel. Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. In one sense, the death represents the loss of hope for the future. But the dead child is also Moses, who led his people from bondage and guided them through the desert to the Promised Land, which he himself could not enter. When Uncle John set the baby’s remains in an apple box among the willow stems in a stream, he echoes the words of the old spiritual, saying angrily “Go down an’ tell ‘em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ‘em that way. That’s the way you can talk. Don’t even know if you was a boy or a girl. Ain’t gonna find out. Go down now, and lay in the street. Maybe they’ll know then.”[24] He directs the box into the current and watches it float away, whirling and turning as it disappears from sight. The scene becomes an ironic counterpart to Moses’ escape from death by being placed in a basket among the bulrushes. The unstated inference of Uncle John’s allusion to “Go Down, Moses” is to the refrain “Let my people go,” the words Moses speaks in his appeal to Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage.

But the death of Rose of Sharon’s baby also anticipates the forging of a new covenant. When this sick, exhausted, and grieving Madonna offers her breast, still laden with mother’s milk, to a stranger who is starving to death, the link uniting humanity is complete. Rose of Sharon personifies the love that a mother feels not only for her own child but also for all of mankind. Her willing sacrifice reiterates the sacrifice of Christ on the cross that is recollected in the Eucharist. Her mother’s milk is now the lifeblood of humanity, and like the body and blood of Christ, it promises new life.

The Grapes of Wrath is a song of experience rather than of innocence. Steinbeck did not posit a world of abundance but of scarcity. He did not imagine a world of friendship, benevolence, or kindness, but of loneliness, cruelty, and greed. His garden was Eden after the fall dominated by the expectation of hardship, suffering, and death. In such a world, men and women may be tempted to act selfishly, but they cannot afford to do so. To survive, they must make common cause. They must become their brothers’ and their sisters’ keepers. They must, on occasion, sacrifice for the welfare of others, for the fate of everything that is depends on their willingness to do so. “I knowed you would,” Ma Joad smiles at Rose of Sharon. “I knowed.”[25] For Steinbeck, in the end, there is no philosophy, no politics, no religion. There is no redemption, no salvation, no promise of a better world here or in the hereafter. There is only life. There are only those who give it and those who try to take it away.

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Notes:

[1] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York, 1976; originally published in 1939), 3.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Ibid., 42-43.

[4] Ibid., 49.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Ibid., 263.

[9] Ibid., 264-65.

[10] Ibid., 292.

[11] Ibid., 296.

[12] Ibid., 65, 67.

[13] Ibid., 112, 114.

[14] Ibid., 187.

[15] Ibid., 121, 30.

[16] Ibid., 31, 105.

[17] Ibid., 215.

[18] Ibid., 249-50.

[19] The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the Arvin Federal Government Camp, which was also known as Sunset Labor Camp or simply as Weedpatch, in 1935. Located south of Bakersfield, California, the camp began operation in January 1936. At that time, it was home to approximately 300 persons who paid $1.00 a week in rent. Steinbeck visited Weedpatch in 1936 where he met Tom Collins, the manager of the camp. He based the character of Jim Rawley on Collins, whom he also named in the dedication.

[20] Ibid., 395.

[21] Ibid., 219, 569.

[22] Ibid., 13, 535.

[23] Ibid., 537.

[24] Ibid., 571-72.

[25] Ibid., 580.

The featured image is “California Spring” (1875) by Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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