Grapes of Wrath Essay: Naturalism in The Grapes of Wrath


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Naturalism in The Grapes of Wrath  

       In John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family and the changing world in which they live is portrayed from a naturalistic point of view. Steinbeck characterizes the Joads and their fellow migrants as simple, instinct-bound creatures who are on an endless search for paradise (Owens 129). The migrants and the powers which force them to make their journey--nature and society--are frequently represented by animals. The Joads, when they initially leave home, are a group of simplistic, animal-like people who barely understand or even realize their plight, but as the story progresses, they begin to grow and adapt to their new circumstances. They evolve from a small, insignificant group of creatures with no societal consciousness into a single member of a much larger family--society.

     Steinbeck strongly portrays the Joads and other displaced "Okies" as being animalistic. They often talk about their predicament in simplistic terms that suggest that they are initially not conscious of the circumstances that force them to leave Oklahoma. Muley Graves, for instance, tells Tom Joad and Jim Casy that the rest of the Joads, whose house has been destroyed by a tractor, are "piled in John's house like gophers in a winter burrow (Steinbeck 47)." This presents the image of a family of animals that have clustered together, hoping to fend off a predator with their greater numbers. They see the societal problems around them in terms of a predator as well; on one occasion, Casy asks a man at a service station, "You ever seen one a them Gila monsters take hold, mister? (Chop him in two) an' his head hangs on. An' while he's layin' there, poison is drippin' into the hole he's made (Steinbeck 132)." This refers to the devastating, unbreakable grip of the socioeconomic forces at work above them (Lisca 96). A particularly important element that represents the migrants on a naturalistic level is the turtle (Lisca 97). Introduced in the first interchapter, the turtle trudges along wearily but steadily on a relentless search for a better place to life. In a similar way, the Joads are constantly on the move. They do not really comprehend why they have to travel, yet they accept it (Owens 131), and are determined to reach the promising paradise of California. Neither the turtle nor its human counterparts will be stopped by any obstacle.

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When the turtle narrowly avoids being run over by an oncoming truck, it promptly rights itself and continues on its endless journey (Steinbeck 15); likewise, the indomitable Ma Joad (Bloom 117) simply refuses to be intimidated when an angry sheriff interrupts their rest in the middle of the night to warn them that they had better move on. Although the Joads and the migrant people they represent are similar to animals in that they lack a higher awareness of their situation, the simple instinct that they also share with animals gives them a quiet but relentless will to survive.

     The societal forces that necessitate and oppose the Joads' westward migration are also portrayed from a naturalistic viewpoint. Although the Joads have a powerful drive to keep on traveling, they are constantly opposed by two powerful predators--nature and society. The forces of nature are predators, endangering the migrants' journey at every turn and threatening their will to survive. At the very beginning of the novel, Steinbeck introduces an image that, although seemingly insignificant, sets the naturalistic theme of the entire novel (Owens 131): an ant lion. An ant lion sets off a "small avalanche" of sand or dust from which the ant cannot escape, no matter how hard it tries (131). The relationship between society and the Joads is the same; the widespread economic ruin brought about by the Great Depression forces them to abandon their once-peaceful lives and embark on an endless struggle that seems ultimately futile. The hardship created by nature also makes society the Joads' natural enemy. Initially, the migrants' biggest societal enemy is the Bank. Steinbeck portrays the Bank as an inhuman monster (Bloom 22) which coldly devours the Joads' and other families' land with its mechanical implements--tractors. The tractor, which is more or less an extension of nature, stifles any individual thoughts its driver may be having, and forces him to accept its predatorial animal mentality. The tractor's destruction of the land, which Steinbeck compares to a passionless, surgical form of rape (Steinbeck 36), introduces the machine as the most widespread form of societal adversity faced by the Joads. As the turtle is walking down the road, a man in a truck very deliberately (Bloom 138) tries to run over the turtle. In the early days of their journey, the Joads' dog is run over by a large speeding car. This is the reason why the Joads simply must keep going ahead on their journey; unless they can reach California, the rest of society, which is on its own quest for survival, will run them down just as the car ran down the dog.

     While struggling against nature and society to find a better life for themselves, the Joads experience tremendous growth and eventually transcend their animalistic nature and their lack of social consciousness. At the beginning of their migration, they are a cluster of small, insignificant animals, blindly fighting for survival in a world which they do not understand and can barely cope with. However, the pain they suffer along their journey eventually opens their eyes to the world around them. Grandpa Joad, unwillingly separated from his homeland, quickly becomes the first casualty of the family's fight to survive, followed by Grandma Joad. Shortly after Grandma's death, Rose of Sharon's husband Connie, bitter about having to live in such miserable conditions when he could have stayed in Oklahoma and gotten work driving a tractor, shocks not only Rose of Sharon but the entire family by running away. During the family's stay at the Weedpatch government camp, Al Joad begins the first of several blows against the family's unity when he declares irritably: "I'm goin' out on my own purty soon (Steinbeck 375)." This news, which can be seen as a defection in light of the adversarial situation surrounding the Joads, hits closer to home, especially for Ma Joad, than Connie's desertion. The weakening of bonds between Al and the family is followed by tragedy after tragedy: Jim Casy's death at the hands of strikebreakers, during which Tom Joad becomes a fugitive; Rose of Sharon's tragic delivery of a dead baby, and the Joads' miserable confinement in a boxcar during a dangerous flood, to name a few. But the family's losses bring them with something other than pain--a new awareness of society and of their role in it. The family starts out as a self-contained, self-sustaining family and ends as a single component of a larger, collective society (Levant 98). Like any consciousness-lacking animal, they have only themselves to care for in the beginning. For instance, Rose of Sharon, is the center of her own existence the day she leaves home. Steinbeck comments on Rose of Sharon and Connie, "The world was drawing close around them, and they were in the center of it, or rather Rose of Sharon was in the center, with Connie making a small orbit around her (Steinbeck 132)." Rose of Sharon later suffers the pain of losing her baby, whom she has doubtlessly spent a long time waiting to care for. After the delivery is over, Ma Joad wearily comments to her boxcar neighbor, Mrs. Wainwright, "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody (Steinbeck 463)." This is Ma's final acceptance of the importance of society over that of her own family. At the close of the novel, a starving stranger needs the family's help. Rose of Sharon instinctively knows what she has to do for the man. She pleads, "You got to!" (Steinbeck 473) and smiles mysteriously, thus accepting her new duty to the collective good of mankind.

     The Grapes of Wrath uses naturalism to chronicle the changes in the world and in society during the Great Depression. The Joad family, and many others like them, are portrayed as small, insignificant creatures who are compelled to search for a paradise they may never find. Along their journey, however, the family grows beyond being a mere animal with no societal consciousness. The Joads discover something larger and more important to care for than themselves: the collective good of mankind.


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