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Critical Analysis of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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“At the heart of every immigrant’s experience is a dream- a vision of hope that is embodied in his or her destination” (Gladstein 685). In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants thought that the American Dream was such a simple concept: go west, get a job, and become rich. However, they did not realize that an ideal life was nearly impossible and it corrupted the minds of those in search of it. John Steinbeck emphasized the unattainable nature of the American Dream of economic stability in The Grapes of Wrath through the Joads’ cross-country migration, their constant and unpredictable changes in employment, and their eventual failure to find success in California.

The Joads’ migration from Oklahoma to California destroyed the existence of an economically secure life. Before the Joad family headed west, they had a home, land, and money. Migrating to California meant starting all over again. The Joads decided to leave their old life in hopes of beginning a new, successful one. “…Every immigrant is impelled by the expectation of a better life at his or her journey’s end” (Gladstein 686). And many more migrants in search of the American Dream were headed west, as well. “The Joads are trying to move ahead [to California] without being able to ascertain exactly where they are headed” (Griffin 594); they just picked up their belongings and left. The Joads did not think about the repercussions that occurred from this move. Never once did they doubt that “there’s work there, and never gets cold” (Steinbeck 34). They were drawn to the rumors that insisted “you can reach out anywhere and pick and orange” (Steinbeck 34). Exotic descriptions like this, from an unheard-of land, propelled the Joads and other migrants towards an unknown paradise.
All these migrants “cram[ed] across the country like ants, live[d] like pigs, and [fought] amongst themselves like cats” (Griffin 591). The people who watched thousands of migrants flee across the country “den[ied] the humanity and the individual worth [of them]” (Bowden 21). Understandably, “[people are] movin’ ‘cause they got to. That’s why [we] folks always move. Movin’ cause [we] want somepin better’n what [we] got” (Steinbeck 128). As people emigrated from European countries to America in search of a better life, these migrants were doing the same; immigrants from foreign lands left their financial security behind, with no guarantee that they would find the American Dream. Many immigrants did not match the wealth they had back home, only increased their freedom. However, these migrants chose to move. Although the Joads were forced to move, they never thought about the consequences or even planned ahead. They, and other migrants, were just trying to reclaim the old, secure life that was once theirs, and is now long gone.

Before the Joads left Oklahoma, they at the very least had a decent place to live, along with a measure of financial security. However, as the Joads moved across country, they ended up staying in places where “illness and hunger were pervasive” (Parini); a place where there was no financial security, or even the possibility of gaining it. “On the edge of every town is a Hooverville [a government camp]…[and these migrants] shall not be allowed to put down roots or organize” (Caldwell 109), because the settlers believed that “there ain’t room enough for you an’ me, for rich and poor together in one country…why don’t [they] go back where [they] came from” (Spangler). No one wanted the Joads or any migrant families to encroach upon their land, steal their jobs, and consume their food. The treatment the Joads received was nothing like the American Dream they imagined. They wanted to feel welcomed and immediately gain wealth. However, their lives were slowly deteriorating to nothing.

Eventually in The Grapes of Wrath, some of the characters came to the realization that they were indeed chasing a dream. The Joads were going down “something of a problematic golden road- a path of escape from destitution to an ambiguous Californian deliverance” (Spangler). It can be inferred that “when the only option becomes putting the family on the road to a strange and unknown destination, problems are compounded” (Spangler), and the Joads did face many problems. Some of the Joads chose to trade in that hope of an unattainable dream for the concrete reality of life. For example, “…Connie strikes out on his own…he [then] abandons the Joads’ stubborn pursuit of farm work in favor of the opportunities in the city” (Bloom 18). Connie realized that chasing after the notion of the American Dream was a waste of time, and although he did run away from the realities of financial insecurity by leaving his wife and baby, he was simply doing what was realistic and instead followed a future that would provide for him. While the Joads were on a never-ending journey in search for the American Dream, they did not find jobs that suited their hope of a financial lifestyle.

The Joads’ constant failure to find lasting and supportive jobs led to financial decline, lessening the possibility that the American Dream would come to fruition. Arthur G. Neal stated, “[the] economic hardships after the Great Depression fell disproportionately on the family unit” (Spangler). This was true, all migrants had hopes of finding a better life for their children; however, The Grapes of Wrath defined the limits set forth for achieving prosperity. “‘The poor’ [people] are identified with ‘the poor people’” (Levant 53). Regardless of the Joads’ hope for prosperity, they were grouped with the underprivileged migrants and fought for every job offer they found, if any. Employers did not trust the migrants, and lines were set between the rich and the poor. For example, “…when a contractor comes from Tulare County to offer work, Tom [Joad] sees how shifty the owners can be” (Bloom 26). He soon realized that he and his family can never be treated the same as these inhabitants; they would always be outsiders. Also, contrary to what Tom Joad said, “The Joads…are indeed bringing their pasts with them” (Owens 646). When Tom picked a fight with an officer while staying in a government camp, Jim Casey fended him off and then took the blame for Tom and was sent to prison. This affected the Joad family’s stability to settle down and ascertain proper jobs; they were always on the move because of Tom and his short temper.
As stated earlier, the Joads were not the only family on the road; competition from other migrants limited the ability for employment. There was “…an epic of dispossessed Oklahoma sharecroppers in search of a promised land in California” (Bloom 9). As seen in The Grapes of Wrath, California was not as it was perceived to be. The American Dream depicted California as a paradisiacal land; in reality, migrants were thrown into poverty and were forced to survive, contrary to what the American Dream envisioned. By the end of the novel, any iota of hope the Joads had for the American Dream was long forgotten.
All the events leading to the conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath provided grounds for the eventual failure of the Joads’ American Dream and any thought of success in California. The Joads knew that the trip to California would be a long and possibly disastrous one, full of poverty and hopelessness. However, they convinced themselves that upon reaching California there would be “…a whole bunch of grapes [to pick] off a bush, or whatever, an’ squash ‘em on my face an’ let ‘em run offen my chin” (Steinbeck 83), and they would immediately become wealthy. If there were one piece of advice that the Joads needed to know, it would be that this was not the case. Aside from Noah Joad, Connie, and Tom Joad, no other characters came to that realization.
The Grapes of Wrath depicted the impossibility of the American Dream and defined the harsh reality of the dirty, corrupted, and greedy nightmare that it truly was. The Joads, and other migrants, learned that not all Americans shared hospitality, kindness, or appreciation. The Joads’ experience showed that the world was full of greedy individuals who fended for themselves. “When they [the Joads] arrived, they discovered that Californians didn’t need them or even wanted them” (Parini). Their hardships and reality of life, from staying in dismal government camps, to losing family members, to not attaining work, showed that California and the road to it were not what they thought it would be.
“The immigrant’s dream is often unrealistic, and extravagant expectations can lead to bitter disappointment” (Gladstein 686). This was exactly the case. The Joads built up a fantastic future in their minds, full of high expectations, which stemmed as “the family’s certainties develop[ed] from an ironically hopeful innocence…” (Levant 47) to thoughts that were quickly shattered as they faced reality head on. “The human reality of California life is a living death” (Levant 52). The Joads learned this, as Granpa Joad first died, then Granma Joad, and finally Rose of Sharon’s baby. Even the new generation would not survive in California, despite the wonderful life imagined there. “Steinbeck wanted to end with a powerful symbol of human life persisting despite the hostility of social forms of nature, which resulted in a destructive storm, a still-born child, destitution, and starvation” (F.W. Watt 38). And though the American Dream proved impossible in The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, led by Ma Joad’s will, continued into the future with their heads held high. A possible explanation for the immediate failure could be what the Joads tied to them during their journey.
Whether the Joads realized it or not, they carried their pasts with them; even when they believed they are moving forward and starting a new life, their pasts caused trouble for them along the road. As stated earlier, Tom Joad was a criminal, he “has killed a man and served some years in jail…he is an outlaw in that profounder and more saintly sense, a rebel…to be hunted down and destroyed” (R.W.B. Lewis 146). Based on Tom’s criminal record and cowardice for breaking parole, his consequence was failure and he took his family down with him. When “Tom kills the killer [who killed Jim Casey] and goes into hiding…” (Caldwell 110), he left his family in shambles to tend to itself. Rose of Sharon and her selfishness contributed to the birth of her still born child, as well as Connie’s departure. At the end of the novel, the Joads were split up; their pasts caught up with them and ensured they did not have a proper life.
In the end, the Joads are left “scattered, homeless, penniless, and without food or hope for the future…Steinbeck has smashed the notions of the American Dream” (Spangler); the concept was lost. Every aspect of the Joads’ dream was crushed and they were left with no financial security, or even simple necessities. This had also happened with other migrants who once had hope. “Still, American [migrants] were left with a feeling of loss and emptiness” (Owens 645).
Throughout the novel, the Joads hope for a better life than they had in Oklahoma. Travelling to California, they believed that finding economic prosperity would be easy. However, John Steinbeck portrayed the impossibility of the American Dream of financial stability through the Joads’ constant migration, unpredictable changes in jobs, and their failure to find the American Dream. The Joads’ dream correlated with other immigrants coming to America at the time. After the Great Depression, the economy stayed low and financial security was impossible. While the Joads did have the proper intentions for moving to California, they disregarded the fact that gaining wealth would not be as easy as they hoped. Rather, they should have thought through their venture to the West beforehand, instead of hastily making decisions without any forethought.



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