The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is a novel about the Dust Bowl migration. It is the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, and it is also the story of thousands of similar men and women. The Joads are forced off their land, so they move West to California. When they reach California, they are faced with the harsh reality that it is no the Promised Land. Steinbeck’s purpose in writing The Grapes of Wrath was to inform the public of the migrants’ plight hoping that it would cause social change. Steinbeck employs the theme of the rich versus the poor to accomplish his purpose. It is a classic conflict between good, portrayed by the poor, and evil, portrayed by the rich.
Throughout the book, a turtle appears and reappears several times. As John Bloom notes, “The turtle itself becomes a symbol for the poor Okies”(Bloom 13). The turtle sets up a parallel between his journey and the journey of the Joads. A connection is made between the Okies struggle and the naturalistic struggle to survive. The turtle symbolizes the persistence neccessary for good to prevail over evil. The turtle overcame every obstacle that he faces. As the turtle is walking down the highway, a truck approached him. The driver saw the turle, and deliberately swerved to hit him. The driver of the truck symbolizes the owners, who deliberately try to strike down the migrants. The turtle continues steadily on westerly; the same direction of the migrant people.
Good is personified by the poor people. When Ma Joad was talking to the storekeeper who had lent her money she said “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need-go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help-the only ones” (Steinbeck 514). It is ironic in order to get something someone should go to the people who have nothing. Examples of the poor helping the poor are prevalent throughout the book. The worker at the dump gives the Joads parts for discounted prices, the waiter at the restaurant sells the bread and candy at discounts, the truck drivers leave them large tips, Ma gives the hungry children stew, and the Joads help the less fortunate Wilsons. All these are examples of poor who have nothing going out of their way to help others.
The Californian people did not view the poor as good people. They called the migrant people”Okies.” At first an Okie meant that someone was from Oklahoma, but gradually it became a term of bigotry. Steinbeck is able to defeat the myth of “Okies.” The myth as one service station man put it was, “Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human” (Steinbeck 301). Ironically the Joads are the most kind and caring people in the novel.
The actions of the rich contrast greatly with the actions of the poor. Roy Simmons pints out that the “actions of the rich leave the poor unaided by humanity” (Simmons 53). The rich are constantly trying to cheat the poor. The junk dealers, knowing that the farmers must sell their possessions, buy at very cheap rates. The car dealers take advantage of the farmer’s lack of knowledge about cars, and rip them off.
The plantation owners organize themselves into a Farmers Association. The owners and the banks deliberately starve the migrants in an effort to turn a profit. They prevent the migrants from organizing, for fear that if the poor untite, they will take over the owner’s land. The owners slash their wages because they know the starving people could not down a job; meanwhile, they burn crops that could have fed these people.
The greatest sin the owners commit against the migrant people is burning and wasting food just to drive up the prices. They burn piles of golden oranges while the starving people stare and watch. This affects the people, and it is said that, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Steinbeck 477). They are waiting for the results, the fruits, of their suffering which will be social change. The wealthy farmers oppose changes because the plight of the migrants benefits them.
Class conflict presents the theme. Kind acts of the poor contrast greatly with the unkind acts of the rich. The poor must struggle to overcome evil. The Grapes of Wrath exposes the abuses of the era of the Dust Bowl migration and convinces the reader of the need for social change.