Here’s hoping that Oprah Winfrey’s recent promotion of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden will spread to include his acknowledged masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. Although the novel’s vaguely socialistic tendencies caused J. Edgar Hoover to begin collecting a dossier on Steinbeck and prevented Steinbeck from receiving an officer’s commission in World War II, in retrospect the book seems to do little more than explain, and promote, the rise of unionism to counter the exploitation of Oklahoma migrants by California farm owners, and, in a larger historical sense, the rise of unionism to counter the historical tendency of cheap-labor businesses to exploit immigrants to keep wages low. Although the novel is set during the Great Depression of the “30’s, it seems as relevant today as it did when published in 1939.
As even the current administration realizes, the family is the critical building block of society, and The Grapes of Wrath initially focuses on the breakdown of the family caused by the losses of farms during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Perhaps ironically, Steinbeck states that the “Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.” Unfortunately, the loss of their homesteads undermined the men’s confidence, because they knew that they could no longer provide for their families.
Luckily, the women seemed more than ready to rise to the situation when the men felt like failures. In the early part of the novel it is Ma that dominates:
She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. Imperturbability could be depended on.
Although cheap-labor conservatives claim to emphasize family values and decry liberals who would foster a welfare state of unwed mothers, they seem unaware that low wages and unemployment directly contribute to the collapse of the family. Too often men judge their self-worth by their ability to be the “breadwinner” and when unable to do so, they lose faith in themselves. Though too often men leave when they can no longer support their families, the women know instinctively that they must hold the family together if it is going to survive.
Tom Joad, the novel’s protagonist, has recently gotten out of prison after stabbing a man in a bar fight, and Ma is worried that Tom will become bitter and go out on his own to fight back:
“Tommy, don’t you go fighten’ em alone. They’ll hunt you down like a coyote. Tommy, I got to thinkin’ an’ dreamin’ an’ wonderin’. They say there’s a hun’erd thousand of us shoved out. If we was all mad the same way, Tommy”they wouldn’t hunt nobody down”” she stopped.
Though Ma is the symbol of the family in the novel and is worried that Tom will abandon the family and light out on his own, her concern for others is critical in Tom’s conversion from an angry loner to a union activist.
Casy, the fallen minister, is redeemed in Ma’s eyes when he says to the family:
I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an mankin’ was holy when when it was one thing. An’ it only got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ 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.
Ma suddenly recognized Casy as “a spirit, not human anymore, a voice out of the ground” because he had put into words her own feelings about the need to stick together.
For a while the disintegration of the family seems inevitable. The death of grampa while crossing the desert symbolized both the oncoming disintegration of the family and the family’s need to do what it must do in order to survive. Unable to afford a funeral, the family ponders what they will do with their grandfather’s body:
Pa said softly, “Grampa buried his pa with his own hand, done it in dignity, an’ shaped the grave nice with his own shovel. That was a time when a man had the right to be buried by his own son an’ a son had the right to bury his own father.”
“The law says different now,” said Uncle John.
“Sometimes the law can’t be foller’d no way,” said Pa. “Not in decency, anyways. They’s lots of time you can’t. When Floyd was loose an’ goin’ wild, law said we got to give him up”an nobody give him up. Sometimes a fella got to sift the law. I’m sayin’ now I got the right to bury my own pa. Anybody got somepin to say?”
The preacher rose high on his elbow. “Law changes,” he said, “but “got to’s’ go on. You got the right to do what you got to do.”
This emphasis on the “got to’s” ties Steinbeck’s novel to the great tradition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Charles Dickens’ novels.
Although Ma defers to Pa in most cases, when the family is threatened she stands up to Pa for the first time. One car breaks down and Pa suggests that the family should go ahead and let Tom and Casy attempt to catch up later, but Ma refuses to go on, fearing that the family will never be reunited. The family expected that Pa would be furious at being challenged by his wife, but Pa is too tired and too defeated to get angry:
“You done this “thout thinkin’ much,” Ma said. “What we got lef’ in the worl’? Nothin’ but us. Nothin’ but the folks. We come out an’ Grampa he reached for the shovel-shelf right off. An’ now, right off, you wanna bust up the folks””””
Ma firmly believes that the family that stays together survives together. Without each other survival is impossible.
Somehow it seems appropriate that Labor Day weekend is a family celebration of the last day of summer, for there is an inextricable link between work and family. While good jobs cannot guarantee good families, unemployment and low-wage jobs inevitably weaken the links that bind families together. For all their propaganda about “family values,” cheap-labor conservatives threaten the very foundations of the family.