John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath


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John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath


Throughout his book, the Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck employs the principles of Foucault’s theory that power exists as a result of consent. This is particularly the case in the relations between the Joad family. Chapter ten includes specific scenes in which the family members’ assumed positions of power are focused on and explained.

When Jim Casy asks if he can accompany the Joads on their migratory trip to California, Ma looks to Tom to speak, “because he [is] a man”. Ma is clearly consenting to Tom’s power over her as a male figure, not because he told her he had the right to speak first, but because she allowed him to hold that prerogative. Foucault also argues that identity perception is related to various modes of discourse that are specific to historical eras; apparently, the idea that women are subordinate to men has been established in behavior, media, or any other entity that influences the way people think.

When the rest of the Joad family returns on the truck after attempting to sell the last of their belongings, Steinbeck uses three pages to describe each family member’s place on the truck and why they belong there. Al is the “proud and serious and efficient” driver of the truck, earning the family’s respect for his responsibility in manning the vehicle. This exemplifies Foucault’s idea of transaction: the family consents to Al’s power because they will be affected if the truck malfunctions. Rose of Sharon is a balanced, self-satisfied, and all-knowing woman whose husband, Connie, is alarmed by the dramatic change in her behavior since the onset of pregnancy: although he once controlled her, he now feels weakened in his power because he has let her complacency control him. Pa and Uncle John, as “heads of the clan,” sit in the “honor seats” beside Al; however, Uncle John secretly wants Rose of Sharon to take his place because he is uneasy inside and knows she is surer of herself. Uncle John’s power is one of dogma, while Rose of Sharon’s is self-asserted.

The entire Joad family then holds a council meeting to discuss their plans for departure. Again, everyone has his or her ordained placement: the men squat in an inner circle, while the women stand around them.

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Although Grampa is still the “titular head”, his position is qualified on the basis of custom and honor, and not his capability of governing. The men and women give him his due right to speak first, because they assume that he rules regardless of whether not he deserves to. Clearly, the whole existence of this family is based on subjection versus power: who dominates whom.

Chapter ten thus serves as both an example and an explanation of the Joad family’s power relations. The family members exist on many different comparative levels of power. By alluding to Foucault’s theory in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck attempts to convey to the readers that power is not arbitrary nor is it fixed; rather, it is a matter of one’s own mental creation.


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