Through this novel which traverses the innumerable sufferings of a family, tied up with strains of misery of other migrant workers, what Steinbeck ultimately focuses on is the triumph of man and it is this which is of utmost importance in the novel. Steinbeck has shown in Grapes of Wrath that one’s own suffering can make some individuals so noble that they are able to forget their own grief and help others who need their help, while in some; suffering arouses feelings of cowardice and selfishness.
This is a novel which though deals with the sufferings of the poor and selfishness of the rich, yet is primarily about the higher values of mankind and also about the baser ones. The first example of the former is Rose of Sharon, the elder daughter of the Joad family, who is married to and pregnant with the child of Connie Rivers. With each passing day as she nears the date of giving birth, hope rises in her heart of a future exempt from the misery of a migrant worker. She believes she will live happily with her husband and child. Her hopes are jolted when her husband deserts her.
Lack of job and food makes him selfish and he does the unpardonable deed of deserting his pregnant wife. And her hopes of a brighter future which are tied up with her baby are completely dashed when she gives birth to a stillborn child. Yet, instead of wallowing in her misery, instead of giving way to despair, she takes a step nearer God by showing kindness to a dying man- she breastfeeds the man and passes on the hope and strength reserved for her child. The second example of higher values in the novel is Ma Joad, an epitome of strength and unity for a family whose tribulations seem never-ending.
In fact her strength and decision making power earn her a compliment from her husband. (Chapter. 26) It is she who decides that Casy should travel with them. Her sense of oneness with her family is so strong that when the Wilsons’ car breaks down and Tom offers to stay behind and get it mended she refuses and ultimately succeeds in keeping all together. Although a figure of kindness and unity she fails with regard to her elder son Noah and her son in law Connie, both of whom desert the family. Yet she is strong and persistent in maintaining the sanity of the family despite their troubles.
She is the figure of kindness in the novel. She feeds stray children in a camp when there is a shortage of food for her own family. Her kindness is returned to her when one of the boys inform the Joads about Weedpatch, the government camp for migrant laborers; and later in the Hooper ranch when a clerk at a grocery store gives her ten cents to buy food. The third example is Tom Joad who at the beginning of the novel is a murderer out on parole, but through the tribulations turns out to be a committed activist, bent on carrying on work for the poor laborers started by his friend Casy.
The chief character in the novel is Tom Joad. He is the first of the Joads that we meet. He is shrewd and intelligent and is therefore able to persuade the truck driver to give him a lift by provoking his feeling against the “rich bastard” whose truck it is. “But sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a [No Riders] sticker. ” (Chapter 2)He brings Casy, the Christ-figure to the rest of the Joads and ultimately follows in his footstep. He is brave and has a feeling of family solidarity and that is why is determined to move with the family even though he is not permitted by the law to do so.
He is not selfish like his brother Noah who citing neglect by the family decides to quit their struggle. Tom has also been ignored by his family but sticks on with them. It is he who suggests that they share the ride with the Wilsons. Most importantly after Casy’s death he realizes that Casy had been fighting for the poor and resolves to carry on his work. Ma asks, “ ‘What you gonna do? ’” “ ‘What Casy done,’ he said. ” Tom goes through self-searching after he kills for a second time. He is the character whose growth is prominently enumerated by the novelist:
“ ‘I been thinkin’ a hell of a lot’” he says, “ ‘I been thinkin’ long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could- Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’t worry me now. Don’t worry me. ’” The final attestation of Tom’s taking on a new way of life starkly different from his earlier one comes when he tells Ma: “Well Maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one-an’ then….. it don’ matter. Then I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where-wherever you look…. God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.
” (Chapter 28) Like his brother and brother in law, Tom could have been selfish and thought only about himself and his own progress, but he does no such thing. Instead he feels intensely for his fellow sufferers and takes up the cudgel for their cause. His passion and commitment make him stand out. Another example of goodness in the harsh conditions is the friend of the Joads, Casy. He might have failed as a preacher but rises in humanity by taking a decision to fight for the exploited laborers. He sticks on with the Joad family even though their own family members desert them.
He helps in the burial of Granpa Joad and helps Tom escape the police when Tom trips a deputy by taking the blame on himself. He is finally killed in a scuffle with the deputies but not before his zeal has touched and converted Tom to take up the cause of the poor. Ultimately, through the depiction of the deaths of Granpa and Granma Joad, the liquor addiction of Uncle John, the incapacitation of Pa Joad under innumerable pressures, their lack of jobs and the continuous movement in search of it, Steinbeck manages to give the novel a universal hue of the struggle of the poor against the harsh atrocities of the rich.
It is the calamity of famine at the Great Bowl and lure of work in California which causes a large scale migration of farmers from the former to the latter region. The Joad family like thousands of other migrant families has to struggle for food, suffer insults and humiliations at the hands of the police and bear the scornful name of ‘Okies’.
They are treated as animals at most of the camps that they stay in on their journey to California except at the Weedpatch where they are given unexpected facilities like a visiting nurse to look after the migrants and proper toilets. But lack of work forces them to move again and at each new place where they go for work, they meet the same situation: the great influx of workers causes acute shortage of work and makes the wages go down so that the sufferings of these homeless laborers increase.
They are hated by the Asian workers of California for taking their jobs away and are given especially bitter treatment by the police who do not want them to settle down for political reasons. Amidst all this the third son of the Joad family, Al, helps out the family but his interests lies in girls. Towards the end of the novel he is also shown to have an inclination of moving away from the family when he takes the decision of marrying Aggie Wainwright amidst the shortage of food and work.
In fact it seems at the end of the novel that even nature colludes against the Joad family and other laborers as it rains incessantly and floods so that the Joads have to abandon their Boxcar. Thus we see that Steinbeck’s novel is packed with a multitude of characters and situations. In fact these situations form the crux of the novel as the characters are tried on them and if it is the finer human feelings which triumph, it is because of Steinbeck’s firm belief in the goodness and godliness of mankind.