Themes are beliefs, ideas, and philosophical concepts that the writers share with their readers through their literary works. John Steinbeck has also discussed various themes in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Various themes of The Grapes of Wrath are relevant even today. Some of the major themes have been given below.
Themes in The Grapes of Wrath
Ravages of Industrialization
Ravages and devastations wreaked by fast and heavy industrialization in America in the 1930s. It also impacted the farming community severely. The Joads suffer badly in this double onslaught from nature as well as from industrialization. This led to a change in their ways of living and forced them to move to California. With displacement comes a shift in gender roles and responsibilities as various tenant families face hardships during migration from Oklahoma to California. The Joad family, too, faces the same hardships as Pa Joad becomes almost invalid, leaving Ma Joad to take hold of the family unity and Tom Joad to take the leadership role. It also leads them to suffer hunger, deaths, and threats of the uncertain future.
The theme of corporate greed goes parallel to the theme of industrialization. It is because the corporate culture created huge greed among the capitalist agricultural industry. The landless farmers were displaced by the machinery produced by the corporate culture. The Joads were forced to migrate to some other lands in search livelihood. The philosophy of Casy for humanity is the product of such a greedy culture of profiteering. This, like industrialization, transformed gender roles too. This also leads to confrontation between the law enforcing agencies as Tom confronts the cop at the Colorado River. This greed leads to the inhumanity that Steinbeck had constantly pointed out when using tractors started making tenants landless and hopeless.
Man’s Love for Land
Tom Joad and his family have been forced to leave Oklahoma because of the drought. This forced migration from their lands proves disastrous for them. Steinbeck’s philosophy is that if a piece of land does not support a family tilling it, it is not worth the praise. The land gives people independence. Pa Joad’s loss of his role as a head of the family owes very much to his loss of land. Casy’s philosophy of humanity, too, is connected to the ownership of the land where people are independent. Therefore, the novel depicts man’s love for the property as the Joads leave the place; they do not leave humanity.
Shifting Gender Roles
The shifting of the economic structure is responsible for the shifting of gender roles. It seems that the patriarchal structure crumbled due to migration resulting from natural disaster and industrialization. Ma Joad takes the leading role but very briefly, and Tom again leads the family from Oklahoma to California. The shifting of the family witnesses Pa Joad’s diminishing character and Ma Joad’s increasing leadership. She asserts her power to keep the family united when Tom and Pa both suggest that the family should split. Ma Joad disagrees and takes the leading role. Her rebellion agrees with the feminine spirit of keeping the family united and also shifts the responsibility to the patriarchal structure when the situation improves. Tom becomes the head of the family once they reach California. The character of Rose of Sharon, too, transforms to help others, though she was quite immature at first
Death and Suffering
Living during the challenging climatic conditions, the Joads face become landless and homeless; they also face deaths during migration. The first death is of the Grampa Joad, followed by Granma who dies when the caravan of the migrants reach California. It is because of the difficulties and hardships that they face during the journey. Without having anything to eat, the Joads carry on with whatever they have until one of them also leaves the family life just for water. Even Rose of Sharon suffers from this long journey and shows her humanity to save others from death when she offers her milk to a dying man.
Through the experience of becoming landless and poor, the Joads reflect the situation of the entire tenant community of Oklahoma. This experience of an uprooted life after living on the fertile lands leave the Joads distraught. The mass exodus of the families from Oklahoma toward California suffering from hunger and thirst on the way also reflects the collective experience. Although the novel has not shown many deaths and sufferings of all, they are still some of the common experiences all the migrants had gone through.
Power of Family
A strong family system gives birth to a strong social system. The Joads represents families of the migrant workers who have to face the wrath of the modernization and industrialization of agricultural farming. The novel highlights it through the Joads’ relationships, their commitment, and loyalty to one another. That is why Tom and the family mourn those who leave them on the way to California. This is also the very reason that Tom is impacted by Casy’s aspirations and joins the movement by the end. Rose of Sharon’s act of offering her breastmilk to a dying man is also a symbol of a strong social bond.
Role of Hope in Society
Hope plays an important role in a social set up. The persons who stay hopeful even in desperation keep their heads high like Tom. When the Joads travel to California after they are sent away from Oklahoma, everyone faces uncertainty. However, when they discuss their future and hope to find a better place, it plays an essential role in lifting their suppressed spirits. Tom’s belief that they are on the way to a better life gives hope to other family members. Ma’s dream of having a home and Rose of Sharon’s hope of having a movie theatre at the new place are some signs of optimism during the time of hopelessness.
Although the circumstances for the Joads become very desperate and challenging, their furious refusal to bow shows the anger of farming laborers. They have suffered losses after losses, which include deaths of family members as well as finances. Noah and Connie have left the family, while Grampa and Granma died. However, stiff resistance and wrath stay with the family against injustice and cruelty. That is why Tom rises against it, facing the cop when the moment comes. Wrath is shown in the final chapter, where women see their husbands working and turning their fear into anger. Here, wrath has been projected as a positive trait.
Altruism and Selfishness
Even though selfishness appears like an evil lurking behind the financial crisis, it transforms into altruism by the end when Tom acts upon Casy’s teachings to work for the entire community. The journey of Tom from a selfish young man to a person with the desire to help his community is a journey from selfishness to altruism.