Inequality and Exploitation in The Grapes of Wrath

The child says to his father Why do we have nothing to eat? His father replied 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.

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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. Steinbecks 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 as one family. The Joads arrive at their destination many family members short, as several either pass away or abandon the family for their own, mostly 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 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.

The Joads are constantly under the whim of some entity that seems to hold all the power in society. In Oklahoma, bad harvests force farmers like the Joads to borrow money from banks and become tenants on their own land. Then, when the banks can no longer afford to keep the tenants, they kick them off the land they fought for and replace them with industrial tractors. The principles of occupation and ownership mean nothing to these monsters who breathe profits and eat the interest on money (Steinbeck 32). Likewise, in California the farm owners and sheriffs push around and bully the Joads in an attempt to keep them servile. As Kristine Yee says Preying on the farmworkers need to survive, farm owners use the migrant workers fears against them to the point of oppression (255). Owners attract an overabundance of workers to drive the supply of labor up, and in turn drive the price of wages down. Then once all the picking is done, the owners pay off the sheriffs to keep the now idle workers on the move and prevent them from setting up real lives. All so they can have their precious profits.

In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads are representative of all the migrant workers who share their situation. In Marxist philosophy they are 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 ruling 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, were half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an ragged. If all the neighbors werent the same, wed 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 aint yourn, an it aint gonna be yourn (Steinbeck 235). This alienation from their work deprives the migrants of their most basic needs. They yearn for the good fields with water to be dug for, the good green fields, earth to be crumbled experimentally in the hand, grass to smell, oaten stalks to chew until the sharp sweetness was in the throat (Steinbeck 234). If the Joads, the workers, the proletariat were just able to own land and take substance from their efforts, all would be right with the world. This, unfortunately, is not the case.

An important aspect of marxist philosophy is solidarity between the proletariat. The reason that the existence of the bourgeoisie is unacceptable is because they are on a level above the proletariat, benefiting from and abusing their labor. The banks are not acceptable because they steal property and product from the tenants. The farm owners in California are not acceptable because they prevent the migrant workers from owning the means to make a living for themselves. Both the banks and the farm owners make their way by manipulating capital, instead of by performing the labor that makes the capital profitable. They live and breath and grow by taking from others. The proletariat, on the other hand, live and breath and grow by giving to and helping one another. As the reverend Jim Casy says I got thinkin how we was holy when we was one thing, an mankin was holy when it was one thing. An it ony got unholy when one misable fella got the bit in his teeth and run off his own way, kickin an draggin an fightin(Steinbeck 81). The migrant families on the road, either on their way to California or in California moving from potential job to job, are like one family. As one family pulls off the road to make camp, other families join them. They share food with the sick and hungry, they all keep eyes on their collective children, they celebrate and take joy from a babys birth, they donate to help for the burial fee of a lost loved one. Use ta be the fambly was fust. It aint so now. Its anybody. Worse off we get, the more we gotta do (Steinbeck 445). The migrant families take strength from their bonds and their oneness with their fellows.

One of Marx and Engels economic theories was the idea of surplus value. They believed that the value of a good was equal to the amount of work required to make that good. The proletarians who produce the good, then, should be paid wages that equal the goods value. More often than not, however, the bourgeois capitalists do not pay wages that equal the goods production value, creating what is known as surplus value, which amounts to extra profit. This system of proletariat exploitation is made use of heavily by farm barons in The Grapes of Wrath. One peach farm the Joads worked at paid five cents per box of peaches picked in company store credit, while it was being striked; as soon as the strikers were cleared out the farm planned on paying two and a half cents per box of peaches picked. You know what two an a half is–thats one ton of peaches picked an carried for a dollar…No–you cant do it. You cant get your food for that. Cant eat for that (Steinbeck 383). Indeed, the Joads barely made enough money in a day with seven sets of hands working to pay for that nights dinner. There is a fundamental problem with a system in which the employers dont pay their workers enough to afford supper at their own company store.

The owners own and do not work while the migrants work and do not own. According to Marxist philosophy, a system that separates workers from what they produce is destined to fall: the proletariat must overthrow the bourgeoisie and take the means of production for themselves, or as Marx himself wrote, The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable (9). Many of Steinbecks words reflect Marxs revolutionary prophecy. In one particularly radical quote, he warns to Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live–for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live–for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken (Steinbeck 151). The migrants will not rest, will not be satisfied until justice has been wrought. They will not stop until their families can eat and their children can go to school. Every injustice the Joads suffer is another step towards uprising. Every experience they share with other migrants and grow from is another step towards unity. As Sally Buckner says, The wrath grows, a fearsome, terrible wrath, but, as several chapters make clear, better wrath than despair, because wrath moves to action. Steinbeck would have his people act, in concert and in concern for one another, and finally prevail over all forms of injustice. A society that does not support its workers, as the California agribusiness did, cannot last. Either society must right itself through reform or change in economics, or it will be righted by force.

The nomadic workers of The Grapes of Wrath are strong individuals and strong as a collective force, but they are nonetheless subjected to cruel injustice and oppression. The fact that their character is enhanced by their hardships does not excuse the treatment through which they were enhanced. It should not be the lower classes destiny to be subjugated by those classes who were able to benefit from that ancient social stratification that forever changed the course of human history. It should not be the lower classes lot in life to have their lives decided by higher classes that seek to enhance their status at the expense of others quality of life. The Grapes of Wrath offers an interesting view into both the inner workings of those who hold power (banks and land barons, etc.), and those who hold no power (tenant farmers, who would become migrant workers, etc.). Examining this unique perspective by comparing it to Marxist philosophy lays bare the flaws of California agribusiness society and makes clear the course of action that must be taken by the migrant workers if the system is not corrected naturally. The migrant workers of The Grapes of Wrath fall victim to their own fears: they are afraid of losing their work so they dont speak out against their inhumane treatment. In the novel, it was a preacher, Jim Casy, who finally spoke up against the system and started a movement to help others raise their own voice, because two voices are louder and harder to ignore than one. All the weak and oppressed people of the world can learn from Jim Casy. Individuals are weak, but a group, a unit, a family, is strong. Strong enough to take the food back from the evil men who took it, so that the hungry child can finally eat.

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