AP English Literature and Composition, Period 6
4 December 2018
Inequality and Exploitation in The Grapes of Wrath
The child says to his father "Why do we have nothing to eat?" His father replies "Because
other men have taken so much for themselves that there is none left for us." Inequality dates back
to the beginnings of civilization. Ever since the moment one man discovered a way to have more
food than another man, humanity was set on an irreversible course for economic disparity. John
Steinbeck is no stranger to the grim situations of the poor. In his novel The Grapes of Wrath,
Steinbeck tells the story of poor laborers in the Dust Bowl/Great Depression era. They face
economic and social inequality that deprives them of their humanity and forces them to resort to
desperate measures to keep their families fed. These crimes against humanity breed anger among
the laborers, and this anger will eventually turn to wrath as they lash out against their oppressors
and retake the means to keep themselves alive and well, as well as restore their dignity.
Steinbeck's story is an exceptionally Marxist one, with migrant farmers serving as the proletariat,
and banks and land barons serving as the bourgeoisie. By analyzing The Grapes of Wrath by John
Steinbeck through the Marxist critical lens, the reader better understands the plight of migrant
farm workers in Great Depression era California.
The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, a family of tenant farm workers in
Oklahoma. Driven from their home by intense drought, changing economic tides, and foreclosure
on their house, they pack up and seek a new life in the famous land of milk and honey: California.
Along the way they meet many other migrants in similar circumstances; families share what they
have and seem to become one family. The Joads arrive at their destination short several family
members, as several either pass away or abandon the family for their own selfish reasons. Their
Promised Land, however, is not the haven they expected: an over-supply of labor forces migrants
to compete with each other for wages. The Joads manage to find enough work around several
counties to stay alive until Tom, the eldest son and leader of the family, kills a vigilante
strikebreaker in anger. Tom is forced to go into hiding. Eventually, Tom tells his mother that he is
going to help organize workers, push back on the system that keeps them down, and bind his soul
to that of all oppressed people. With this promise, he leaves. The remaining Joads carry on with
their lives through tragedy and sorrow, but remain hopeful, because they are a part of the greater
family of all migrant workers who can share the weight of their sorrow.
The Marxist critical theory sees the contents of literature involving class conflict as results
of economic tensions. According to the Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary & Cultural
Criticism, "Literature or art signifies the class conflict, then, and it is the goal of Marxist criticism
to bring to light this conflict as it is articulated in a text" (175). In Marxist theory, the proletariat,
or working class, provides most of the labor in a society, while the bourgeoisie, or middle and/or
upper class, benefit from their labor and live in relative comfort. According to Marx, the
proletariat must overthrow the bourgeoisie and destroy all private property. Marxist critical theory
aims to analyze class struggles in literature and the history of how they developed. Readers discern
whether a text seems to preserve class differences, or seeks to undermine and eliminate them.
Those who utilize Marxist criticism usually have some interest in bringing about social change.
Indeed, bringing about social change is a major facet of The Grapes of Wrath.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads are representative of all the migrant workers who share
their situation. In Marxist philosophy they represent the proletariat, the engine that makes industry
function. An important thing to note is that, despite their importance, throughout the story the
Joads are disconnected from what they produce. They grow corn and cotton in Oklahoma because
the bank tells them they need to grow it to make enough profit. The banks, of course, are the
bourgeoisie, the class that rule over the proletariat. Once the crops are grown, the bank takes away
a sizable portion of the sale and leaves the already poor farmers with scarcely enough money to
put food in their stomachs, as an anonymous farmer states, "--we're half starved now. The kids
are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an' ragged. If all the neighbors weren't the same,
we'd be ashamed to go to meeting"" (Steinbeck 33). Once they arrive in California, they sow and
reap and pick crops owned by the farm owners. They never once touch a grape, an orange, or a
piece of cotton that they at any point owned, "Well it ain't yourn, an' it ain't gonna be yourn”
(Steinbeck 235). This alienation from their work deprives the migrants of their most basic needs.