Steinbeck uses the land to ground his characters’ sense of self. The land gives them an identity, a past and a future. When they lose their land, that identity starts to dissolve. Steinbeck depicts the land as having a soul, and performing manual labor on that land provides a deeper understanding of life. The farmers derive wisdom from the land; it helps with their thought processes and decision making. The heartlessness of tractors and the detachment of landowners disrupt the farmers’ connection to the land. This theme has roots in American romanticism, as intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau explored how land ownership and hard work equate to independence. It also parallels a philosophy, embraced by Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, in which people see nature as giving “their own lives…meaning and worth” (Astro 72).
The Second Industrial Revolution shook the structure of American life in the early 20th century, as a large number of people migrated from farms to major cities to fill the demands of the new economy. Over time, more efficient labor practices and the use of machinery seeped into the area of agriculture, displacing many farmers. In The Grapes of Wrath, the need for improved farming techniques becomes significant when the drought makes crop cultivation difficult. The industrial economy adversely affects the farmers, forcing the banks, portrayed as monsters, to foreclose on unprofitable land. Steinbeck depicts industrialization as a sexual force, replacing the loving hands of a farmer with the roughness of a beast:
Behind the harrows, the long seeders—twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. (36)
For the farmers, modernization not only alters their way of life, but also their romantic attachment to the land.
When the Joads move to California, they experience another trial. While the state does not suffer the same weather-related problems as Oklahoma, industrial agriculture has resulted in only a select few owning land, leaving smaller farmers displaced and migrants expecting work. In both cases, industrial agriculture challenges the Jeffersonian view of the hard-working, noble farmer as a romantic American figure; the new owners have no emotional connection to the land, regarding it only through paper or plunder.
As the novel begins, the Joads appear to operate under a patriarchal structure, where the oldest male acts as head of the family, making all decisions for the group as a whole. Grampa has passed this responsibility to Pa, who presides over a kind of council with the other men. Ma and the children only observe and try to keep the men from breaking down due to stress. However, once the Joads leave for California, Pa’s grip on authority loosens. As the family’s situation grows more extreme, Ma senses Pa losing focus and picks up the leadership role herself. She exerts her newfound power by threatening Pa with a jack handle when he and Tom propose that the family split up after the car breaks down:
‘…I’ll shame you, Pa. I won’t take no whuppin’, cryin’ an’ a-beggin’. I’ll light into you. An’ you ain’t so sure you can whup me anyways. An’ if ya do get me, I swear to God I’ll wait till you got your back turned, or you’re settin’ down, an’ I’ll knock you belly-up with a bucket. I swear to Holy Jesus’ sake I will.’ (169)
Pa grumbles about Ma’s rebellious spirit, but he chooses not to confront her. Ma gets pleasure out of chiding Pa; for her, an angry man is an undefeated man.
With these shifts in family dynamics coinciding with societal shifts, Steinbeck examines the traditional family structure and questions its effectiveness. People enter and exit the family’s circle at will (the Wilsons, Noah, Connie, Jim Casy, the Wainwrights), and all are treated with reverence and respect, regardless of actual kinship; the Joads’ interests lie only in perseverance. Steinbeck echoes this idea in several intercalary chapters as migrants unite temporarily in the campgrounds before moving on to the next place.
Ma has been celebrated as a feminist icon for inverting the family structure from a patriarchy to a matriarchy, a gender role reversal that can also be seen in Steinbeck’s characterization of Rose of Sharon. Her change from an immature young woman to the embodiment of hope and survival—the helpless man whose life she saves is now part of the reformed family unit as well—stands as a symbol of humanity’s resolve and endurance.
As a fire-branding minister, Casy spread God’s word, but after his sermons he slept with women from his congregation who were excited by his preaching. Coming home from a trip to the wilderness (one of several attributes he shares with Christ), Casy crosses paths with Tom Joad. Casy confesses his sins yet denounces the organized Christianity he practiced in the past. Casy now believes that “'maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of'" (32-33). Later in the novel, when Casy delivers Grampa’s eulogy, he says, “‘He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now he’s dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says “All that lives is holy.” Got to thinkin’, an’ purty soon it means more than the words says’” (196-97). Casy’s philosophy is thus constructed on the idea that all living beings are intrinsically linked, with love and compassion being major components of his belief. When Casy dies, Tom adopts his way of thinking, promising to take Casy’s leadership platform to the displaced migrants:
‘I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can at, 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 our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy.’ (419)
This speech marks Tom’s final appearance in the novel, turning him into a symbol of sacrifice as he carries on Casy’s mission of unifying the migrant workers. Tom offers a glimmer of hope in solving the novel’s—and, by extension, society’s—problems.
Steinbeck puts class discrimination on display in The Grapes of Wrath, focusing on the economic situation of the migrant people as compared to that of the landowners. Several intercalary chapters explain the fear that the California landowners feel over the influx of workers. Steinbeck explores the American desire for land in Chapter 19, describing how “a horde of tattered feverish Americans” took the land from Mexicans and “guarded with guns the land they had stolen” (231). As small farmers lost their land to larger operations and owners grew scarcer, workers were imported, abused, and forced to work on credit, sometimes even owing money to their employer. This cycle gets interrupted when people from the Dust Bowl begin to move west looking for work. The landowning capitalists fear these migrants, realizing from their own histories that it is “easy to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed” (233). Tensions also increase among the merchant class, who dislike the workers because they cannot gain any capital from them. The general feeling toward the migrants begins to take on racial undertones: “Got to keep ‘em in line or Christ only knows what they’ll do! Why, Jesus, they’re as dangerous as niggers in the South! If they ever get together there ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop ‘em” (236). “Okie” becomes a derogatory term used to describe those who might challenge the rich farmers and their agricultural interests.
The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a proletarian novel, advocating social change by showing the unfair working conditions the migrants face when they reach California. The men who own the land there hold the power, and attempt to control supply and demand so that they can get away with paying poor wages. After listening to Casy talk about unity, Tom plans to represent the workers as they fight against exploitation in the face of this economic machine. In the end, the Joads develop a sense of community among their fellow exploited proletariats, still searching for the sometimes elusive American Dream.